The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 12th, 2004

We preach baby worship but practise baby farming

We have got used to the idea that buzz words are weasel words; they tend to mean just the opposite of what they should. We have come to accept that when politicians and public figures talk eagerly of choice and consultation they mean bullying with only the most transparent pretence of listening to anyone else.

The same goes for buzz phrases. “Spending more time with the family” — now one of the most weaselly phrases in the language — means anything but. The departure of Alan Milburn from Tony Blair’s government last year to spend more time with his children was a particularly shameless example of buzz speak.

One can only wonder what the Milburn “kids” think of their father’s change of heart as he returns to the cabinet after just a year. Who knows? They may be quite relieved that after this year’s experience he is prepared to spend much less time with them.

Yet the buzzing continues; considering the large quantities of paternal egg on Milburn’s face, it almost defies belief that Andrew Smith, on being edged out of office by Blair last week, could bring himself to say that he, too, wants to spend more time with his family.

I find it equally astonishing that Cherie Blair should have acquired the buzz reputation of a devoted mother. No doubt she is convinced she deserves it. Yet she is supposedly a high-powered QC and spends a lot of time accompanying her husband to a great many official and unofficial events. She does quite a bit for charity, she travels a lot and as if there weren’t quite a few obstacles already between her and spending any time whatsoever with her kids, she has written a book that she is now busy publicising and she has just put herself on the books of a public speaking agency. She has also embraced the time-consuming role of ambassador for London’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. Are these the acts of a devoted mother? Hardly anybody seems to find this odd. On the contrary, received wisdom has it that ours is an extraordinarily child-centred society, with role models such as Cherie and Tony and their holy family. Britain is supposedly a nation of baby worshippers, obsessed with its “kids” and longing for more time with them.

As usual the opposite is true. We spend less and less time with our children. We are more and more prepared to hand them over to other people, we have allowed the state to encroach more and more on family life and last week it emerged that the government is about to nationalise parenthood and family life altogether, so that we have to spend almost no time with them at all.

Last Wednesday Charles Clarke, the education secretary, announced a brave new scheme of “wraparound educare” for all, in his chilling expression. He recognises that working parents need not only education for their children but childcare, too, and he proposes to provide it at school. “Educare”? What kind of talk is that? “We need,” said Clarke with earnest confidence, “to create a universal one-stop service for parents”, and he has committed the government to offering school and social care for children for 10 hours every day round the year, including the school holidays, from infancy.

Given travel to and from school, this could well be an 11-hour day away from home for many children. St Bede’s primary school in Bolton is already open from 7.30am-6pm for 51 weeks of the year, providing breakfast, after-school clubs and nursery services for children aged from six weeks to 11 years. From six weeks old means hardly out of the womb. This is baby farming. What else can you call it? Why not hand babies over at birth and have done with them as our forebears used to do? Why not hang them up by the swaddling bands on a hook in some stranger’s hut? We live in a society where people talk of baby worship and practise baby farming. We talk of community and busily undermine the family. I wish I were surprised that there hasn’t been a public outcry over this, but I’m not.

This might perhaps not be so shocking if all schools were temples of plenty, peace and joy. After all, some children really do enjoy some boarding schools. But state schools are not always such havens. Parents all know that there is a serious shortage of good teachers and there are not nearly enough to give proper individual attention, even during the present short school day.

We know teachers are under-trained, under-paid and demoralised, constantly dropping out or taking stress leave, constantly being replaced by substitutes. We know they often can’t keep order and that bullying is a grave problem in most schools, as is violence in many. We know that too many nursery carers are in every way inadequate in numbers, in training and in continuity of care.

We know schools have vending machines selling junk food and drink that make children obese. We know that most school meals are rubbish and that children are allowed to choose the unhealthiest food.

Last week the shares of Compass, the world’s largest caterer, fell by 25%, partly because of unprofitable school meal deals with British education authorities, some of whom budget only 42p-44p per school lunch.

Yet it is to these huge, unhealthy, crowded, ill-run, under-staffed institutions and to a succession of strangers that the government expects us — and not just exceptionally needy parents — to consign our babies from infancy.

If you applied to a pedigree dog society for permission to buy one of its animals and explained that you would be sending it out for care for 10 or 11 hours a day to a kennels down the road — a bog-standard kennels in fact — it would show you the door as an unfit owner. Wraparound educare is not good enough for a valuable dog or even for a pedigree cat.

Yet we solemnly think it is good enough for our children, or at least the government does. And it is taxing us more and more heavily so that it can give us our money back in dribs and drabs and allowances and credits here and there to pay for the ferocious cost of this baby farming, so we can then go out to work for the privilege of neglecting our own children.

“Children,” as Clarke said, “are our most precious asset. How we nurture, care and support them in their early years is a fundamental test of whether a society values individuals and believes in opportunity for all.” How true, for once, how true, whatever he may have meant.