Oliver James: Children need love, not warehousing

It now looks almost certain that 90-95 per cent of differences in our psychology are not caused by genes

Related Topics

Despite pledging to protect funding for the popular Sure Start programme for pre-school children, David Cameron is, to the anger of many parents, slashing it. He should be pouring far more money in – but only after radically changing what Sure Start is.

The initiative was originally intended to emulate an American scheme called Headstart. Massive resources were thrown at helping low-income US parents relate better to their children (parenting skills, psychological help, support to reduce isolation) and when they were over three, providing cognitively-enriching environments. Evaluated 30 years later, for every dollar spent, seven had been saved down the line. Better education results meant higher levels of employment, reduced criminality and less substance abuse.

Norman Glaser, Sure Start's first director, intended to repeat the formula in Britain. Within two years he had resigned, because the Government refused to let him. Instead, the shiny new children's centres were increasingly given over to providing group daycare so that low-income mothers of under-threes could work. Never mind that these jobs were low paid and often part-time. Initially, there was a problem of low take-up. Filling the gap, some middle class mothers – never the group targeted by Sure Start – were very happy to avail themselves of this subsidised facility.

While daycare is not proven to be harmful for all children, there is strong evidence that it is less good for under-threes than one-on-one care. Aged four and a half, a child who has been in daycare for more than 45 hours a week when under three, is six times more likely to be aggressive and disobedient than one cared for at home exclusively by one parent. Unsurpisingly, when the evaluation of Sure Start was published, it was shown not to have worked – in fact, children from the most disadvantaged homes actually did worse than those with no intervention. It is true that not all Sure Start provision is daycare (perhaps two thirds of the budget goes on daycare). And undoubtedly some excellent attempts have been made to do more than warehousing. If only they had stuck to the original idea which was to help parents meet the needs of their children.

Twenty years ago for an article in this newspaper, I asked the right wing scientist Richard Herrnstein a question. If 10,000 children from low-income homes were swapped at birth with ones from rich homes, when they grew up, would there be greater criminality among the originally low income ones? He was emphatic that genes meant there would be, largely because of inherited low intelligence.

It now looks almost certain that he was wrong and that 90-95 per cent of differences in our psychology are not caused by genes. The case then, for early intervention has never been stronger. But insofar as that entails substitute care, it should be a national network of nannies, not daycare. I would retort to those who object on cost grounds that Gordon Brown famously told us he would "do whatever it takes" to save the banks. How about doing "whatever it takes" to create a mentally healthy population?

Few if any of the New Labour luminaries used daycare for their children – only nannies were good enough. It's the same for the Cameroons. If he is serious about general well-being, the Prime Minister should transform Sure Start into a parent-support programme, including a national nanny service. Under-threes need the undivided attention of a loving adult, responsive to their needs. Where substitute care is used, most parents would prefer a blood relative. But failing that, nannies are the most likely to meet small children's needs.

Oliver James' book for parents of under-threes, How Not To F*** Them Up, is out in paperback.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas