This condition is why, in recent years, profit-making ‘kinder care’ businesses have sprouted up on every other side street and why home-based childminding has perished. Thanks to huge Government subsidies since Labour’s National Childcare Strategy we have a whole new ‘kinder care’ growth business. A Canadian Pension Fund recently bought Busy Bees, Britain’s largest nursery chain.
This and other such nursery chains and businesses, all with reassuringly cuddly names, promote themselves as providing quality childcare.
Before the 1980s the idea of relinquishing your baby or infant into such daycare was virtually unknown. Local authority daycare was regarded as the least worst option for severely disadvantaged infants – the bottom two percent of babies whose mothers could not cope or had not the means to cope.
But with 1970s and early 1980s demands for female equality came innovative workplace crèches, some of the earliest ones set up by universities. Though wary of them myself at the time, I realise now that at least they had the virtue of having a parent nearby, and having the parents involved in setting them up. Much of the early positive research findings stressing the virtues of daycare stemmed from this.
Then came the The Daycare Trust (now the Family and Daycare Trust) and the cause of universal childcare provision to free women to work. From its founding in 1986 the push towards formal subsidised childcare and away from informal childminding has been relentless. Childminding, once the most popular form of non parental childcare after family members went into decline. By the 1990s, there were already 87,000 daycare places for babies and infants.
Today, following successive government boosts, there are 721,500 places. Over half of these, 440,000, are occupied by 0 – 2 year olds. That means nearly half a million British babies and infants today spend the waking hours of their early life looked after by a succession of strangers in a semi-institutional setting.
This has been nothing less than a silent and unmonitored social experiment. Within 30 years we have witnessed a fundamental shift in child nurturing: from mother to stranger, from home to institution.
Thanks to the Chancellor’s brand new multi-billion pound incentive – a £2000 annual payment per child for registered childcare, this baby business is set to get another huge boost. An ever higher proportion of babies and infants will spend their early life in a non-home, non-maternal environment, that Sally Goddard Blythe worries may not meet infants’ basic developmental needs.
What is frightening is that such concerns are not on the Government’s radar. The precautionary principle about infant development has been abandoned.
Nor has the endemic low standard of registered care and training in the ‘nursery care sector’ given the Government pause for thought before expanding this business. Yes, this is what Professor Cathy Nutbrown’s Review of Early Education and Childcare Qualifications found.
Nursery staff, she famously said, have worse qualifications than people who look after animals.
Like their Labour predecessors, neither Nick Clegg or the Early Education Minister Liz Truss has asked the question whether the State would subsidise mass childcare if the baby’s best interests were put first . They seem to have uncritically accepted the assurance of childcare lobbyists that daycare benefits the child and is what parents want. Yet surveys since 1999 show it is not. Mothers prefer family members, especially grandparents, to be the replacement carer.
Mothers also express concern about the extent to which nursery workers can be trusted to provide high-quality care or a safe environment. Their instincts are not wrong. Independent research shows that group care, regardless of quality, does affects infant development and behaviour.
A report from the ISER, (the Institute for Social and Economic Research), ‘Parental Employment and Children’s Welfare’ found increased early maternal employment led to slower child emotional development, weaker cognitive outcomes and lower educational attainments. It is no more than commonsense suggests. It is not rocket science that committed mother care is best.
It is ironic that a Government study – the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project – echoed these findings. It found:
- Children who experienced high levels of daycare before the age of three were more likely to have behavioural problems than those cared for within their families.
- While good-quality pre-school education improves children’s educational outcomes, a full day at pre-school is no more productive than a half-day.
- The best pre-school experiences were those with a high level of parental involvement.
More recently the Oxford Family Children and Childcare Study also reported that that children who spent more time in group care, mainly nursery care, were more likely to have behavioural problems, particularly hyperactivity.
This research has fallen on deaf ears. The dangerous childcare juggernaut fuelled by Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Liz Truss rumbles relentlessly on. Women’s rights may have been hard won, but the right to publish and discuss openly the inconvenient potential effects of daycare on children will be harder to secure.