Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: 'Kelly hours' could release pupils' potential

Children at the bottom are the ones who need a committed nanny state
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Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, is as keen to grab her place in history as Tony Blair. Today she announces a policy to help working parents: schools will open between 8am and 6pm for children under 14. Approximately £680m will fund this project - surely an insufficient sum - to pay for stimulating out-of-school-hours care for pupils across the country.

The scheme is to be called "Kelly hours" hereafter and forever. Teachers are wary; traditionalists furious. A spokeswoman from the Family Rights Campaign Group denounced the idea because it would discourage people from marrying (batty or what?) and then claimed this is a plot to get women into the service industries to avoid the need for eastern European migrant workers. Tory right-wingers are sure to blast away at the interfering nanny that is New Labour.

Steady on. The scheme could make a difference to the children who have never mattered to Middle England or to the elitist Conservative Party. Sure Start, which was set up to help families to improve parental relationships and skills, is an excellent intervention with demonstrable benefits. Only the Tories seem incapable of understanding the needs that are being met. Common-boys-made-good-chaps, like David Davis, have become zealous advocates of laissez-faire economics and social policy, which is why we voters keep them sweltering in the wilderness. For there is such a thing as society.

Other objectors are more worthy and serious. Teachers are right to worry the plan could fail because it is not well-resourced and is dependent on the private and volunteer sectors. Some mothers already complain that they are being forced into work when they would rather bring up their offspring - and they may feel under further pressure.

Getting parents into work has been an obsession of this government - and, in the last few years, campaigners have questioned this drive. When very young children are cared for by outsiders, researchers have found higher levels of antisocial behaviour. But Ms Kelly's policy caters for older children, most of all older children for whom home is not a sanctuary where they can develop their potential. It is about how the other third lives.

On Saturday, I sat alone eating lunch in a department store café, in a pretty part of London, squeaky-clean and very middle-class. The place was full of parents with small children who were tucking into crayfish and avocado, or leek soup. There were no toddler tantrums, no excruciating shrieks, just gentle, quiet coaxing and real conversations with children, some of whom had astonishing vocabularies and communication skills.

They were on their way, these children, shooting ahead of hundreds of thousands of other children in this country, most of whom will never catch up. Some of the haves will fall by the wayside; fate and genes can be capricious, and affluence itself is creating its own kind of dysfunctional family. But the majority of the dozen or more children I observed, and others like them, will make something of their lives, collecting more privileges each time they pass Go.

When we talk about inherited advantage and disadvantage, the emphasis is heavy on the material - computers, private schools, nannies. Of course these things matter hugely. How does a child living with a lone mother in a tiny flat, on an income of £5 a day, compete with a child in a home with the latest learning technology, books, highly educated parents and a life stuffed full of travel and excursions?

But there are other impediments to the prospects of the impoverished child that are harder to quantify and are politically sensitive - recall the appalling Keith Joseph and his distasteful views on the fast-breeding dross that he feared was bringing down the stock of the nation. This is an area where angels fear to tread, but yet they must.

Far too many children living in low-income households, with stubborn social problems of drugs and crime, suffer material deprivation and a lack of emotional security and real communication with adults. Their parents are themselves a volatile bundle of ignorance, desperation and ineptitude. The kids, growing up frightened and lost, are victims of random cruelty and the terrible vulnerabilities of incapacitated adults. They try to survive, often don't, turn wild, enter the social control world to become Asbo kids, and then face our collective wrath.

Ours is a two-nation country when it comes to childhood, with the majority of British children enjoying the good life brought on by both the meritocratic revolution of the Sixties and the successful embourgeoisement that has placed their families beyond the reach of economic vagaries and the kinds of anxieties that make the poor age and die prematurely, the no-hopers.

Two years ago, the journalist Polly Toynbee tried to live for some months on poverty wages in one of the worst housing estates in London. In her book, Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain, which Toynbee penned after this experiential research, she wrote this overwhelming truth: "The ladders up into the middle-class domains have been cut off. As the income gap between the top and bottom has widened, so social mobility up and down shuddered to a halt. It is as if the escalator has slowed, even jammed. The people at the bottom will never get to the top."

These people at the bottom include children already born and those to be born; our nationals, the future of the fourth-richest nation on earth. They are the ones who absolutely need a committed nanny state to release them from the fate to which they are at present consigned. Kelly hours, could, in a small way, help release them. Think of what it could mean if they were enabled to escape the home and god-awful TV for a good part of the day, if they gain access to all those activities, ideas and experiences taken for granted by the middle classes; if they get to eat a decent breakfast; if they have adults who can guide them through life and inspire them. These children would gain entry into worlds they barely know.

Many professionals cannot afford, or don't want, private childcare - which can be unreliable and problematic - and they will want to use this new facility. Normal school time barely allows for informal and creative social mixing. If this long day leads to a deepening of understanding and cross-fertilisation between youngsters from the two nations, perhaps, in a generation, the escalator will move again.

Kelly will then more than deserve a brass nameplate in history. But only if she puts in proper money and thought, and fights for this aspirational policy before it falls into the ditch of political failures, one of too many under busy New Labour.