Why is it considered such a scandal for young children to spend long days at school? Often it’s a lot better for them than being at home

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers needs to get real


It’s an almost Dickensian vision. Tiny, exhausted children, brought to school before sunrise; staying at school for 10 hours before returning home, wan-faced and drained, just in time to see children’s television bidding them goodnight. At least, this is how the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) sees it, slamming the current offering in which breakfast clubs and after-school clubs in primary schools have developed into the almost round-the-clock care facilities that Michael Gove advocates.

Oh, wicked parents who utilise said clubs. We (yes, I am one) are only thinking of our wallets, and ourselves. School clubs are far cheaper than nannies, after all. And much easier to organise. They even feed  your child! A sort of one-stop shop in which teachers take over all areas of parenting. The needs of the working parent are selfishly paramount, and those of the poor fatigued child irrelevant.

Only in practise, it doesn’t work like this, at least not in my experience. Two of my children are still at primary school. Sometimes I can finish work at 3pm, so I can collect them at 3.30pm. At other times, I can’t. In which case, they stay at school and go to the afters-chool club at their state primary in north London. Here, they are looked after by a regular team of cheerful, trained adults, some of whom I have known for years.

Children from other schools come to the club, so friendship groups are shaken up and extended. The children, who are all in Year One or above (so no child as young as four), are given fresh fruit, milk and sandwiches in an orderly fashion, at tables and (unlike at lunchtime) with proper plates and cups. There is no question of continuing lessons; the classrooms are out of bounds and the teachers have gone home.

At some point during the afternoon, everyone is marched out to the playground to use the swings and play football for at least an hour. When I collect my lot at some point between, say, 4 and 6pm, they are either happily and loudly playing outside, or they are inside - dancing, taking part in a quiz, or making an intricate model of (say) a dinosaur with Hama Beads (tiny plastic cylinders which melt into one another when ironed over).

They are not watching television. They are not hunched over tablets. They are not behaving in a feral, undisciplined fashion. They are socialising and enjoying themselves under the eye of an adult. Often my two beg me to let them go to after-school club, even if they don’t need to. Sometimes after-school club is a lot more appealing than being at home, where we have no Hama beads and no climbing frame.  

The ATL should put take a large book in its collective schoolbag and take it home to study. This book is called Being Realistic. To the ATL’s call for a five-hour day for primary school aged children, I would point out that small children cannot get home on their own, or look after themselves when they are at home. They need collecting, and looking after by kind, responsible adults. So, unless you or your partner never works (a rarity), the choice is usually as follows. Granny. Nanny. Au pair. Childminder. Or school, where the terrain is familiar and the chances for disaster relatively slim.

Oh, yes, disasters. I know all about this. One of my so-called trained, very well paid nannies once allowed my children to wander across a road into the path of a motorbike. On her last day with us. Another let them practise “abseiling” with a clothes line around their necks, utilising a door frame in the kitchen. That was his last day, too. Never mind the legions of sullen au pairs, for whom texting Maman and visiting Primark on a weekly basis came a good few stages above the need to attend to their charges.

I have had fantastic au pairs and nannies. But the turnover is rapid, and you can never guarantee what you get, no matter how forensically you interview. I actually employed one nanny for two years whom we later discovered was on the game. 

Furthermore, shall we just have a raincheck on the notion that home is always the best place for a small child to be? When we have the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, pointing out that many children come to school who are unable to use the toilet, hold a pen or achieve simple numeracy skills, one has to consider whether some children might actually be best off staying at school for as long as possible.

Primary schools do the best they can, in a world where parents need to put in very long hours and answer to a ferociously demanding working environment. Everyone wants to do the right thing for their child; and the fact that primary schools don’t slam those brightly coloured doors bang on at 3.30pm is, in my view, a blessing for all involved.

So the glorious Matisse is about to open at Tate Modern, and for everyone who cannot wait to visit what will clearly be the year’s blockbuster, there will be also those who are viewing experiencing the show with understandable trepidation. Too often, these giant exhibitions end up being like a trip around Ikea, only with more valuable stuff to look at. You start out with great intentions but all too soon find yourself locked into a giant, maze-like course in which room leads into room and from which you will not be relased until, some 90 minutes later, you eventually come to a till.

This week I discovered another way, which I thoroughly recommend to all giant exhibitions and permanent collections. It is offered by Madrid’s Prado and is a simple, but brilliant solution. For just two euros, visitors are offered a small booklet called Masterpieces. Essentially, this is just what it says it is. A guide to the 10 or so must-see pieces; a sort of Premier League of key works in the collection.

With this authoritative little book in your grasp, you can skip from Fra Angelico to Velazquez by way of Rogier van der Weyden, and leave the gallery after about 50 minutes, perfectly informed and with the assurance that you have seen the absolute best the Prado has to offer. It is also a perfect device for anyone with potentially grumpy children in tow. Show them the booklet. Promise them that this handful of pictures and NO MORE will be seen, after which a visit to the café will be allowed.

This week, I did just this, booklet in hand. My offspring followed me around meekly and stood before Las Meninas, like obedient sheep.

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