Deborah Orr: Why does the Government think we're a nation of bad parents?

The Tories' childcare plan could be seen as more feminist than Labour's
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The Independent Online

Actually, when you think about it, it's an insult. The idea is that the sooner you hand your babies over to the professionals, the better it will be for them and for you. Educational attainment will be increased, crime will be cut and, in the words of the Day Care Trust, "a more stable and harmonious society" will be created. Parents are lousy. Nursery is great. And that's why Gordon Brown thinks that children really ought to be in day care for 15 hours a week at the age of two. Thanks chum, for the vote of confidence. I simply can't wait to return the favour.

Let's contrast Gordon Brown's "aspiration" to Iain Duncan Smith's earlier this month, and you, as an actual or potential parent, might feel a little more flattered. A report entitled The Next Generation, from his think tank the Centre For Justice Studies, suggests that one-to-one parental interaction with the under-threes is so important that people ought to be given up to £6,000 a year just to encourage them to stay at home with their toddlers.

In contrast to the Day Care Trust's assertion, the Next Generation argues that parental neglect when children are very young contributes to knife and gun crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor mental health. David Cameron is said to be "looking at it", but since he claims to support Gordon Brown's plan, in theory at least, then he can't be looking at it very hard.

One could, of course, set aside the uncharacteristic appeal for a big state hand-out, and read the recommendation of the Centre For Social Justice as old-style Conservatism wrapped up in shiny new paper. Child care, even for the very young, has always been defended by progressives as a route to gender equality. Duncan Smith, it could be argued, is merely so desperate to get women back in the kitchen that he is willing to pay them to do so.

In presenting the report, after all, he emphasised that either parent could provide loving early nurture, but that in reality this tended to be provided by the mother. He's right, of course, and the UK's statistics on lack of gender equality in the workplace confirm it.

Duncan Smith's critics will argue that it is precisely the lack of good quality childcare that holds women back in their careers. Look at Sweden, they will say, where subsidised childcare is available for up to 12 hours a day from the age of one. That is "a more stable and harmonious society" is it not? Well, it is, up to a point. Except that according to Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, the gender pay gap in Sweden runs at 20 per cent, just as high as it is here. It is not hard to work out why that is. While 75 per cent of Swedish women work in the public sector, where pay is lower, 75 per cent of men work in the private sector, where pay is higher. Even in socially democratic Sweden, private employers are put off by the prospect of expensive parental leave, flexible working and so on, and working mothers find themselves in lower-paid, lower status jobs.

Certainly, Swedish children do not appear to suffer from being ripped untimely from the maternal breast. But an important thing to remember is that in Sweden state child care is conducted differently. The early-years emphasis there is on socialising children rather than formally educating them. And crucially, because there is a great deal more public space available, children spend more time outdoors, in green spaces, playing, right up to the age of seven.

Even for small children in Britain, formal classes have become more target- and attainment-led, with private and independent nurseries becoming as constricted by the national curriculum as state-run ones. Brown claims that this approach fosters social mobility. But research shows that the gap in attainment between children on free school meals and the rest increases as schooling goes on, rather than decreasing, The prospect of handing one's children over to such a regime at a very early age, therefore, is not necessarily appealing.

I don't happen to believe that children have to be stapled to their mothers until they are five, in order for them to be happy and well-adjusted. On the contrary, for a lot of parents, however much they love their children, some time away from them is both positive and necessary, and if it brings home the bacon, then so much the better. Duncan-Smith's idea is flawed because it conflates parental absence with parental neglect. A poor parent is perfectly capable of spending every minute of the day with their baby, and still managing to serve them badly at every turn. A good parent, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of making complex arrangements involving many other adults, and still finding the time and energy to form a strong psychological bond.

Child care is expensive, and working parents are not likely to turn their noses up at free good-quality nurseries. But what I despise about the Government's rhetoric is that it treats us all as bad parents, whose children can only benefit from being away from us. Schools do complain that many of their pupils turn up at five without enough social skills to be able to cope. They are unable to conduct a conversation. They are unable to use a knife and fork. They are unable to concentrate. It is tempting to believe that more schooling, earlier, is the solution here. But the values a school promotes are unlikely to "stick" unless they are backed up at home, at any age.

The concept behind Sure Start was that the parents who needed it could be taught alongside their children, in order that they could make a better job of things at home. If Brown wants to early years education to be about social engineering, he'd be better off developing this idea than insisting that the best way to help parents is always to take their children off their hands.

Yes, families are better off financially when parents are at work, of course, and that is important. But when a decent parent comes home from work, the time they spend with their child is more valuable than that which any nursery can provide. Likewise, when a neglectful parent comes home from work, much of the positive influence that a nursery might have wielded is likely to be wiped away. Why wait till a child has an Asbo, then sentence his parents to parenting classes? It is poor parenting that has to be nipped in the bud, and it is wrong to present child care as an antidote to that.

There is another way of viewing Duncan Smith's proposal, which casts it in a light that is more radically feminist than anything the present government has ever countenanced, in policy terms at least. In the 1970s women's groups campaigned for wages for housework (and one group at least continues to do so). The Centre For Social Justice could be said to be taking a similarly liberating stand, and requesting that women – and men – should be valued more for the social capital that they create outside the workplace. This is at least more life-affirming than the mantra being sold to us by Labour - that the only good families are "hard-working".