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Who will raise our children?;Primary

Philip Gammage says we need to bridge the dangerous gap in child education left by increasing sexual equality

Most men, and many education ministers of both sexes throughout the world, seem to be suffering what has been called "mural dyslexia" - an inability to read the writing on the wall.

The message they fail to decipher concerns the social effects of the long march of women.

Failing to address the needs of modern women (and men), and provide for most children from birth, will leave society lacking in humanity, development and cohesion.

Education must be thoroughly integrated with health and social care for it is as much about social outcomes and the health of the nation as about cognitive gain or national prestige, and the years from birth to three determine the quality of all our futures.

Accelerating neuro-synapse connections - rapid language-learning, imitation and modelling skills - all start to tail off from the age of about six or seven. That is usually when formal schooling starts.

We know children learn many, if not most, of their skills before they enter formal education.

Most working women are already back at their jobs (full or part-time) within 12 months of giving birth. And, as the Danish sociologist Jens Quortrup asks: "Who is going to love and socialise our children in this unknown future?" Many countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are already legislating for the integration of care and education. Some, such as the Scandinavian countries, have ensured either means-tested provision from birth or a sufficiently generous state support system to ensure good early parenting.

Throughout the world, a discernible divide exists between "economic rationalist" countries, which see the answer in privatisation and pushing responsibility back to the individual family or person, and countries that see the question as one of concern for the whole of society.

Will men work as carers, nannies and early years teachers in the multi-professional teams of the new millennium? Will our societies provide good institutions for all who need them?

Researchers say long-term male delinquency can often be predicted from child behaviour at three years. Good care and socialisation demands skilful intervention and support to avoid inadequate, irresponsible parenting of the kind that produces children lacking in self-esteem and possessing the attributes that lead to malfunctioning adolescents and adults.

We need bold initiatives. We probably need to divert money from secondary schools and universities, and especially from businesses.

Employers have a responsibility in all this. Money and initiative are needed to establish creches, ecoles maternelles, kindergartens and nurseries on the same scale as for elementary education in the 1870s. We need intervention and support for parents as generous as that in Scandinavia or France, so those who want to stay at home may do so, and those needing care and education for their children can get it immediately.

We need unified ministries of care and education, as in south Australia. We need action research to help parents help their children from birth, such as the Peers Early Education Partnership in Oxford.

The problem won't go away. It has many aspects - work patterns, divorce rates, family size, levels of poverty, awareness of the power of early learning.

In Denmark, 90 per cent of women are in the workforce. In some English cities, more school-leaving girls now get jobs than boys. On average, each child in Europe is a member of a family with fewer than two children. Her parents have a 40 per cent chance of divorce. Extended families have been largely destroyed by mobility and changing lifestyles.

So, who will instil vital social values in our children from birth? Can institutions with well-trained staff and good adult-to-child ratios really substitute for or supplement families?

These issues are not "sexy", but they are more important than university places, fine medical schools or MBAs. They should preoccupy vice-chancellors, bishops, ministers and headteachers. They affect the very fabric of our society. Can anyone in power read the writing on the wall, please?

Philip Gammage is emeritus professor of education at Nottingham University and professor of early childhood at the University of South Australia in Adelaide

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