The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 2nd, 2007

Pushing mothers back into work is wrong

A photograph of a nasty-looking woman called Geraldine Rama appeared in a newspaper last week; she made the news because she had bitten a 10-month-old baby boy in her care “with considerable force”, according to medical evidence. It emerged that both his legs were broken as well.

Naturally, social workers were at first inclined to blame not the gruesome Rama but the baby’s unhappy parents and he was placed on the “at risk” register. Things were sorted out, after six months, and Rama has at last been taken off the childcare register, but the story is a terrible warning. You leave your babies and little children with childminders and crèche workers at grave risk — to them, to yourself and to society at large.

Not every child carer, I admit, is driven by fell impulses to savage infants. All the same, the nightmarish Rama had her moment of notoriety on the day when an Ofsted report announced that thousands of babies and children were at risk from “inadequate” childminders. About 20,000 children are left with carers who neglect them, leaving them crying and hungry, and a further 125,000 are left in care no better than “satisfactory” and with scope for improvement. I can’t help feeling dubious; if Ofsted’s assessment of schools is anything to judge by, I would be very sceptical of its notion of what is satisfactory or better than satisfactory.

Be that as it may, Ofsted has found that standards are declining significantly in an industry that has sprung up rapidly to look after children whose mothers and fathers are working. One in 12 workplace crãches was found inadequate as was one in 14 of the extended schools, which take in children before and after school hours. Standards are falling, particularly among childminders.

This comes when women feel unprecedented pressure to go to work, whether they want to or not; more than half of all mothers of children under five do so, leaving 0.5m children in daycare. What this means, often and even in allegedly satisfactory situations, is leaving children in their most impressionable and formative years in the care of poorly educated, poorly paid, poorly qualified or unqualified women, who come and go at a high rate.

Ofsted’s report came only a day after a six-year study by Durham University found that the government’s early years policies have been a £21 billion waste; Labour’s Sure Start scheme — along with its early years education and childcare — have had no impact.

This wasn’t news to those who have been following this fiasco. Two years ago a report by Birkbeck College in London found the same thing — and something worse as well. Not only did researchers find no discernible difference in children’s development, language and behaviour between those in Sure Start areas and those elsewhere. It also showed that some children of teenage mothers did worse in Sure Start areas than elsewhere — no mean feat.

Adding to this dazzling list of failure, it emerged last week that standards in the three Rs among seven-year-olds have dropped to their lowest level for seven years despite huge government spending in primary schools; one in four boys fails basic writing standards. Standards among 14-year-olds are dropping and employers complained recently that they have to retrain semi-numerate and semi-literate recruits. All this was overshadowed by discussion of knife and gun crime among feral children from malfunctioning families, one of whom murdered Rhys Jones.

Does one have to be a right-wing bigot to see a connection between these things? If mothers feel forced to rush out to work, many of their children will be seriously neglected and many seriously neglected children become damaged and destructive adults. Politicians bleat about good affordable childcare as the solution. But good childcare is in short supply and it is not affordable for most people, even when it can be found, without state subsidies. The result is predictable — bad childcare, or childcare that isn’t good enough.

If you leave your children to the fitful attention of strangers and take chances on the quality of care, you run the risk that they will be badly brought up and will do badly. We live in a society of state-driven and state-subsidised child neglect, promoted by Gordon Brown and his tax and benefit policies and his wraparound educare. He was a child-neglect chancellor for 10 years and he is now a baby-farming prime minister. The consequences are turning out to be disastrous.

There are many pressures on mothers to go to work, even when they have young children. Women both need to work and want to work and I would hate my sex to be shackled to the pushchair and the washing machine. All the same, the people who grumbled decades ago that feminism would destroy the family had a point.

Family life needs time and attention and so does raising a sensible, capable child; working life takes up time and attention, to the point where there’s not enough left for family life. The difficult job of socialising children has been abandoned by many women; along with it have disappeared the traditional functions of stay-at-home mothers — home-making, neighbourliness, elder care (as we have to call it now), charity work, community work and all the many things that make up civil society.

I don’t have any instant solutions. The irresistible force of a mother’s need and longing for work constantly comes up against the immovable force of her child’s need and longing for her. It also comes up against the demands of family life.

It is wrong to pressgang mothers into work with massive tax and benefit incentives; those incentives should be offered in the opposite direction — to mothers (or fathers) who stay at home to bring up children and who take on community work and charity work. Family life would become affordable; wider good works would become possible.

Some way would have to be found to discriminate against — yes, I mean it — the welfare queens who would have babies to avoid work. But if there were a will there would be a way. Then family life and family childcare and all the little kindnesses that make a good society would be — I can’t think of a better word — reincentivised.
At least the risk of baby-biting might decline.