Just before I became a mother, another parent told me that I would never stop worrying about my child. He was right. When my daughter was born, I worried about her feeding properly. When I went back to work, I worried that she would miss me and develop psychological problems. I worry about her when she is unwell.
Now my daughter is nearly three, she is at the peak of toddlerhood irrationality. She says “no” to everything. She won’t let me dress her in the mornings – when I manage to get her T-shirt on, after five minutes of wriggling and running around the house, she takes it off while I’m putting on her socks, giggling with glee at outsmarting her mother. When we're in the park, she’ll run in the opposite direction to where I’m going, even if it means missing out on feeding the ducks.
Am I worried about her behaviour? Of course not. She is a toddler, and being chaotic and contradictory is as fundamental to her everyday life as bedtime stories and going to the swings. You don’t need to be an educational psychologist to know that this is a key stage in an individual asserting his or her independence, after two years of being totally dependent on another human being.
Yet if we parents of toddlers are to believe what Liz Truss, the childcare minister, says about our youngsters, then we should be very worried indeed. In an interview with the Daily Mail this week, she spoke with apparent horror at visiting nurseries where pre-school children were – wait for it – “playing” and “running around”, rather than “waiting their turn” and “saying hello to the teacher when they come into the room”. Oh dear, send for social services!
Ms Truss’s objection is to nurseries staging too much “free-flow play”, which she calls “chaotic”, without structured learning or a sense of purpose to their activities. She wants British nurseries to be more like those in France, where children from the age of two have a graduate-level teacher and more disciplined study, rather than child-centred learning.
My daughter goes to a nursery which is part of a nationwide chain. They have structured learning-through-play in the mornings, which might include making pictures but also singing songs about the days of the week and months of the year. After lunch and nap time, there is more learning and play – but perhaps more free-flow than the morning. It is a fantastic balance for a group of children who are, after all, not yet three years old.
During this free-flow time, they are interacting with other children and nursery staff, and therefore developing social skills, just as they would in a school playground. They are exploring the nursery room and the garden outside. Many of the children, including my daughter, are often there until after 6pm, and too much rigidity, or too many tasks, would be exhausting for them. When I turn up to collect my child, it is a great joy to see her “running around”. If she was sitting quietly and patiently, saying hello to every adult who walked into the room, I would think there was something wrong with her.
Ms Truss’s concern is that allowing “free-flow” play prevents some children from being able to communicate with a teacher by the time they start school. But surely giving toddlers the freedom to explore their surroundings actually increases their communication skills because of novel situations, while being forced to parrot “hello” every time an adult walks into the room is verbally inhibiting? Wouldn’t reducing staff numbers also hamper their ability to communicate, because there are more children fighting for attention?
At the same time as demanding more rigour from nurseries, Ms Truss also wants staff to look after more children, changing the ratio of adults to two-year-olds from 1:4 to 1:6. In my daughter’s room of two- to three-year-olds, this would mean two staff looking after 12 children. When one of them needs to be accompanied to the toilet, there would be one staff member left with 11 children. No wonder Ms Truss wants our toddlers to be well-behaved robots – the relaxed ratios she wants to introduce would cause even more chaos in the nursery room.
The minister argues that changing the ratios would lead to lower costs for parents, because nurseries would be employing fewer staff and therefore be able to bring down fees.
Apart from there being no evidence that nurseries would reduce their fees, any lowering of costs would be outweighed by a dramatic drop in quality of care, as happened in Holland when ratios were relaxed during the past decade (before being reinstated when the Dutch government became alarmed at the changes).
Copying other countries’ policies is what Ms Truss – and her boss at the Department for Education, Michael Gove – are obsessed with. If they want to follow that Scandinavian beacon of good education, Denmark, perhaps they should note that a new school for three- to seven-year-olds opened there by Lego, the toy manufacturer, will focus on creativity and play alongside learning.
The new tax break for childcare from 2015 is welcome (though a variation on the existing voucher scheme), but why not use government funds to make costs cheaper by directing the money to nurseries and other providers?
Instead of depleting our children’s ability to enjoy learning through play with fewer staff, Ms Truss should focus on reducing childcare costs for parents while maintaining standards of quality. But her childcare policy is a mass of contradictions and irrationality – much like, may I say, a toddler.