In recent decades, the provision of nursery places - at state expense and as an automatic right - has become a political football that is kicked desultorily around at election time. The underlying thinking from both left and right seems to be that nursery education for all children is Definitely A Good Thing. And, of course, it is a good thing that children become used to mixing in groups before they arrive at school.
Now, however, we have a substantial report, Learning to Succeed, from the privately funded National Commission on Education, which among other things strongly recommends that children should start school at the age of three. The proposal looks very like a panacea for declining educational standards overall.
When the report was leaked before its publication date, there was no procrastination or evasiveness from the Department for Education on the subject of nursery education; John Patten's statements were commendably clear: we cannot afford it. Thank goodness for that. The thought of all children being placed in hothouse institutions at the age of three, therein presumably to be force-fed with information by a type like Dickens's Doctor Blimber, makes my blood run cold. The regime actually killed Paul Dombey, remember.
In fact, notwithstanding the howls of rage from the pro-nursery education lobby, the overwhelming majority of Britain's three- to five-year-olds do attend some sort of playgroup, creche, private nursery or school for part of the time. In my meetings with families from all manner of backgrounds, both socially and professionally, it is many years since I heard of any small child who did not have at least some institutionalised exposure to other children. The Department for Education says that more than 90 per cent of three- and four-year-olds receive some form of pre- school provision, while more than 50 per cent attend school.
The question, as it so often is, is what sort of pre-school provision children receive and which children lose out. Certainly, all children need to acquire all manner of skills before they begin school when they are five: speaking, dressing, washing, counting, colours, holding a pencil and so on and so on. Psychologists tell us that human beings learn more between birth and the age of five than at any other time in their lives. Surely, though, the natural place for all this to happen is at home with parents? It is, in part, an abdication of parental responsibility to expect the (impoverished) state to lay on expensive facilities to teach very small children such basics.
Because so much that a child needs to learn can be taught within the family, there is surely nothing wrong in the fact that many of the playgroups and nurseries are run by parents on a volunteer basis. Many an isolated mother (or father) is glad of the social contact that involvement in playgroup work can bring, so providing a facility for the children often acquires a further-reaching community focus as well. The adults are just using their ordinary, common-sense skills to help the children to learn what they need to know.
One of the problems with relying on this type of self-help for pre-school education stems from the fact that 'parenting' skills are not inborn, and that it is often precisely those children who could benefit most from pre-school education who do not receive it at home and are not allocated a nursery place. It is widely recognised that those who are fortunate enough to grow up in stable, caring families are likely to make more effective parents than those who have little positive experience of family life. And it is those same fortunate parents who are likely to push for their children to attend nursery school and not take 'no' for an answer from local authorities keen to restrict costs.
One answer, perhaps, is to revive the teaching of 'parent-craft' in secondary schools. In the past, skilled and sensitive teachers taught very 'limited' teenagers, many of them from sad and traumatised homes, how to raise and look after children. I have watched secondary schoolgirls bathing a (real) baby, reading storybooks to toddlers, making children's clothes and toys as part of childcare work.
It is possible to break the pattern of hereditary poor parenting through education. What little money there is should be spent on re-establishing good childcare programmes, particularly in inner-city schools, rather than on any more nursery places. Parents and future parents must be encouraged to take the responsibility themselves.
The minority of children who have no access to any sort of organised nursery experience live, on the whole, in seriously deprived areas. The lack of nursery opportunity is only part of the totality of their deprivation. Surely what is needed here is not paternalistic provision of nursery schools by the nanny state in a vain attempt to fight symptoms, like trying to cure measles by scratching off the spots.
No, we need to fight - or prevent - the disease, which is characterised by low self-esteem, general malaise and passivity. There should be government-sponsored training schemes so that the parents themselves are equipped with the skills and confidence to open playgroups. It would be for the benefit of their own children. Perhaps qualified nursery and infant teachers might do the training and provide support. School-leavers could play a part, too, perhaps through the youth training programme. In relative terms, such a scheme would cost very little. In social terms, it could pay dividends.
The assumption that society's problems - social and educational - can be solved by sending three-year-olds to school is dangerous and simplistic. It is the education of parents that we should be focusing on.
The author teaches at a school in the Home Counties.
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