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Kathy Gyngell: Mother knows best about childcare. Still we waste £5 billion a year on a failed experiment


Whenever I read a new report on the state of the nation’s childcare industry, I get a sense of déjà vu.

The latest, from the House of Lords Committee on Affordable Childcare, motivated by the best of intentions, is a case in point.

It is also a case of back to the future.

The ‘real problem’ with childcare, say their Lordships, is the lack of educated staff.

We have been here before.

In 2011 Professor Cathy Nutbrown of Sheffield University was asked by the Government to review early education and childcare qualifications.

Her conclusion too was the dearth of qualified staff.

She even said more qualifications are demanded of people working  with animals, than of carers working with children.

The Lords Committee goes further. Childcare in England is not just too expensive but that of such poor quality that the Government has been wasting our money

Ah, that Holy Grail of universal access to high quality affordable childcare has still to be attained.

Their Lordships do break the mould in one respect, however, for which they must be congratulated. They point to the inherent contradiction between the Government’s aims of helping mothers pursue careers and improving their children’s development.

But they are mistaken in thinking that either childcare qualifications or overhauling cash allocations in the direction of the poorest children is the answer.

Qualifications do not equal ‘quality’. Access to them does not equal mother care.

No, the ‘real’ problem of modern childcare they ignore is its institutional nature – third party stranger and group care for young infants.

The real problem is subjecting babies and infants to this too young and/or for too long hours.

The real problem is this heartless daycare revolution – a revolution no less in nurturing and rearing the nation’s babies and infants – that has exploded  over the past 15 years thanks to government subsidies and regardless of infants’ happiness and welfare.

Mothers have managed without qualifications for millennia. They are what babies want and need.

You don’t have to live next door to a pre-school nursery or have much imagination to know that infants are not born to be herded; that they are no place for two-year-olds, let alone newborns and one-year-olds, to spend 40 hours a week.

The childcare lobbyists however persist with the mantra that ‘high quality childcare can make a crucial difference to the development of children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds’.

Few dare gainsay it. Not even the Lords’ Committee.

But this is an irrelevence  to most children and a pipedream for the rest, however hard the childcare lobbyists scratch around for or concoct evidence.

The truth is that childcare has consistently failed to deliver on its promises. Sure Start is a case in point. This is the early intervention/childcare programme instigated by the Labour Government at the heart of its bid to reduce inequality. As Jill Kirby revealed back in 2006 it made no difference at all to those it was meant to help.  In some cases the Sure Start control groups (infants not exposed to its ministrations) had better outcomes!

So much for Labour’s ‘every child matters’ rhetoric.

But on  rolls the childcare bandwagon. Its cost to the taxpayer is now £5.4 billion a year – set to rise to £6.2 billion – a sum that would solve some of George Osborne’s problems.  Nearly a third of two-year-olds whose parents have taken up Nick Clegg’s offer of free early education (extended only to the most deprived children) are in centres rated “requires improvement” or “inadequate”.

It all begs the question of why this agenda is still so assiduously pushed by the Government when it is so obviously failing?

Back in the 1970s, daycare was a backstop for the most deprived, about 2 per cent of all UK children, ones whose mothers were not deemed up to the job on their own.

Today political ideology has taken over. For Labour and Tory alike, childcare is a must for their respective  ‘reduction of inequality’ agendas.

Yet, there is absolutely no evidence (despite the Lord’s Committee’s assertion to the contrary) that childcare makes any difference. Longitudinal cohort studies and impact evaluations of specific programmes reveal indifferent or marginal returns if any.

The Head Start Program in the USA (set up by President Lyndon Johnson as part of his Great Society crusade back in 1968) tells a salutary tale. It too, you have guessed, was designed to help the most disadvantaged families and infants in their pre-school years.

Though it included pre-school education health screenings, health and dental check-ups, home visits, and mother support, it has proved less a case of head start than fall back. Evaluations show that despite the billions invested in such programmes, they have made next to no impact on children’s outcomes.

Time magazine’s columnist Joe Klein has called for Headstart’s elimination – after 45 years of not proving itself, he thinks it is time.

So no wonder that I had a sense of deja vu. The Lords now propose coaching parents to talk to their children, as effectively did Head Start back in the late 1960s.

Who could say this is not a good idea? Maternal language is indeed the key to a babies’ development.  But who will be the coaches? The unqualified childcare staff?

How about restoring their status as mothers instead and underlining  the responsibilities of motherhood?

No, the childcare juggernaut rumbles on instead and Nick Clegg’s free childcare beckons for these very same mums. Childcare is good for children they will be told, even if it isn’t  – at the moment or ever.

Critics brave enough to point to its failings are, sadly, not brave enough to call for an end to this appalling experiment and risk taking with the nation’s infants.

I suspect they dare not question the feminist orthodoxies that demand it.

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Kathy Gyngell
Kathy Gyngell
Kathy is Editor of The Conservative Woman. She is @kathygyngelltcw on GETTR and is back on Twitter.

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