Deborah Orr: Don't rely on Kelly Hours to magic away all the problems of parenthood

Honestly, it's as if 'Billy Elliot' never got made, let alone redone as a musical
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The Independent Online

I'm a bit confused by a number of aspects of "Kelly Hours", the extra bits which are to be bolted on to school early in the morning and late at night. I understand, of course, that for working parents constantly harried by the stress of arranging ad hoc childcare, the service will be a boon. But I find some of the more grandiose claims made for the scheme to be spurious.

I'm a bit confused by a number of aspects of "Kelly Hours", the extra bits which are to be bolted on to school early in the morning and late at night. I understand, of course, that for working parents constantly harried by the stress of arranging ad hoc childcare, the service will be a boon. But I find some of the more grandiose claims made for the scheme to be spurious.

Some are greeting this new arrangement as if it is going to be a miraculous transformation, with one commentator even suggesting that it will break down the imaginary middle-class monopoly on judo classes. (Honestly, it's as if Billy Elliot never even got made, let alone redone as a musical.)

Hello! People who are not "middle class" have been sending their boys to judo and other sports classes since what seems like time immemorial, and their girls to "ballet, tap and modern stage" or drama. That's how all those East End girls end up in soap operas instead of on the till at Tesco, as Margaret Hodge would prefer. It's how all those pasty northern lads end up as professional footballers, so that they can be mocked as ignorant overpaid oafs, too stupid to know what to do with their money.

Anyway, schools have been offering extra-curricular activities for decades now, so the idea that any sort of supplementary education outside normal hours never existed before is silly. So too is one excited writer's contention that piano lessons will now be available to all. Presumably on the budgets mentioned, it'll still be one piano per school and no taking them home overnight for the daily practice good teachers demand. Aren't the logistical difficulties of mass piano teaching going to remain, along with the practical difficulties of buying one and fitting it into your home, whatever hour of the day it is?

Then there's that other small problem, which is that the most deprived children, far from longing to extend their school day, are displaying all the attitude they can muster when in class and truanting in their shoals when they get bored with that anyway. For them, Kelly Hours, just like all the after school clubs already on offer, are irrelevant.

Kelly Hours may or may not turn out to be a reliable tool for working parents. They will certainly not magic the real need away, which is for flexible working for both sexes. It is to be hoped that they do not, in fact, make employers yet more hard-line in failing to meet that need.

The rest relies on the idea that only the middle classes bring up their children well, and that only childcare professionals can equal their wondrousness. It is a sorely deluded one.

It's not just money but also parental time that middle-class children have. Two parents working full time on low incomes (let alone one) don't come home, tired but fulfilled by the buzz afforded by their their creative identities, to find that the cleaner's been, and has finished the ironing, the Ocado delivery man is bang on time, and that the dog walker watered the garden. They have that to do themselves, when the quality time is over and the kids are fast asleep. They succeed so well, so often, because they are better parents than many members of the middle class could ever bother to be. The idea that their children will benefit from spending less time with them is insulting.

¿ Even post-Jamie, surely the idea that schools can provide virtually all of a child's nutritional needs is ambitious in itself. In a recent survey it was found that a majority of children, even now, end the school day dehydrated enough for their concentration to be considerably impaired. And what happened to that stuff about parental input into homework being crucial?

How society has changed our prisons

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, at King's College London, has been given four years by the Government to see if it can inject some new ideas into the criminal justice debate. Even a brief visit to a seminar held by the Crime and Society Foundation - the group that is doing the work - suggests that this project is worth paying attention to. I was particularly struck by some propositions from Roger Matthews, from South Bank University, who did all present something of a service by turning some of the shibboleths of current debate upside down.

One of his controversial contentions is that while criminological literature characterises the present period as particularly punitive, the opposite might be the case. He argues that the idea of punitiveness is based on the fact of high prison populations, and on the vulnerability of some of those in prison. But, he says, this is not necessarily the case. He suggests instead that prison populations are high because judges and magistrates have become more pluralistic in their attitudes. Often, he says, mentally ill or homeless people are sent to prison not to punish them but because there is no other way of helping them.

Obviously, there's a touch of iconoclasm to this stuff. But when you ask yourself why it should be that prisons are being used in this way, it quickly becomes clear that it must be in response to changes on the "outside". The sad fact is that as free society becomes less pluralistic, maybe incarcerated society has become more so.

Maybe all those hopeless cases - cemented into their jobs for life, annoying the hell out of "hard-working families" - who got booted out by Thatcher didn't get on their bikes and look for work. Maybe they just went mad, drove their families mad, and ended up in prison.

Into the ears of babes

So, bad news for lunatic parents the world over. Michael Jackson will no longer be sharing his bed with young boys. But why should it stop there? He's not the only pop star, after all, to have had inappropriate relationships with young children.

A whole swathe of them, in their love-god gear, singing about their banal romances, making their risqué remarks in magazines, miming away as they grind their hips on children's television, think nothing of flogging this sad old rope to children of five. My three-year-old told me that the music blaring from a car, which I stupidly identified as the theme from Beverly Hills Cop, was in fact the Crazy Frog song. Who fills his mind with this? It's impossible to stop it infiltrating.

Or is it? Unanimously, it seems, the nation believes that Cherie Booth should be turning down easy money because she's being exploitative. Maybe she should. But at least she's taking cash from consenting adults who ought to know better. A huge chunk of our supposedly sophisticated music industry is based on taking candy from babies. We may be horrified by Michael Jackson. But if we can learn anything from him, it's what happens when you commodify children.

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