VOTE FOR CHILDCARE BECAUSE EVERYBODY WINS

‘Excuse the cynicism but my idea of the “Good Life” is not shoving my 3 and 4 year olds in 30 hours of state childcare to ensure I pay tax’ tweeted a mother this week, as political parties vie to outdo each other in the childcare stakes.  It has become the educational issue of the election, far outstripping any dialogue about teacher shortages and primary school place shortages, both of which could tip our education service into crisis.

All parties are suspiciously quiet (one might almost suspect a conspiracy of silence) about future school structures, governance, inspection and funding. Little is being said about the future of school curricula or how to protect education from the constant political meddling of people who understand little about what students might need to learn and even less about how they learn.

Promises of childcare, of course, court voters, because more childcare means more parents (usually mothers) returning to work. The more parents return to work, the more tax revenue for the Exchequer and the more money being trickled into our nascent economy.  The earlier children are put into care, the better their educational attainment and the more they can earn as adults. Ka-ching! Vote for childcare because everybody wins. Or do they?

As I wrote in a previous blog, there is no magic bullet. There is some evidence of positive impact on disadvantaged children, but also a conclusion that home life is more important and a suggestion in one study that early gains may well be lost by the end of primary school. There is evidence that school-based nurseries have a greater impact on learning because staff are qualified, but many are closing because of inadequate funding or the pressure to create more Reception class spaces. Private and voluntary provision is popular with parents because of its greater flexibility, but it has much less impact on early learning and is also facing a funding crisis.

So what might be on offer from the new government? There is broad consensus between the main parties. The Conservatives have pledged to double current provision for 3 and 4 year olds to 30 hours per week, creating 600,000 new childcare places. Labour is promising 25 hours plus wraparound care for all primary school children from 8am to 6pm. Lib Dems promise 20 free hours from the age of 9 months, when parental leave runs out.

But the move could backfire. Funding sources remain vague, which could turn out to cause the death of any government’s childcare promises. Nurseries are already closing because the funding for 15 free hours doesn’t meet the real cost, so doubling the hours will just double the problem.  Funding, in fact, will probably come from the new DfE opportunity forsocial investment’  hence the party leaders’ courting of the Christian vote. At the recent Festival of Life, David Cameron even resurrected his Big Society concept, saying that Christians are: ‘the Big Society in action’. By caring for the ill, mentoring teenagers and providing aid overseas, he said that ‘Christians are working for a better Britain. Like Jesus turning water into wine, you turn loneliness into companionship, you turn deprivation into comfort, you turn lost lives into lives with purpose’. It’s not Christians who bring about the transformation, of course, but the God whom we love and serve, but the point remains that the contribution which Christians are making to society is viewed as a way to source provision when all other cupboards are bare. Cameron isn’t alone – Ed Miliband gets it, too.

But is childcare from the age of nine months, or two, or even three or four, the best provision for our children? One school is even planning to offer care from birth. Maybe instead of joining the headlong rush to get everyone maximising their earning potential and preparing the next generation to do likewise, we should stop and think about what is best for our children. The Bible says that ‘Children are a heritage from the Lord’. We should be our children’s first and best educators – Deuteronomy 4:9 says: ‘be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them’. How, why,  and at what age, we start to share the raising of our children with others should be informed not by government policy or by how quickly we can get back to work, but by what is best for our children.

Increasingly, the evidence shows that home environment has the biggest and most lasting impact on a child’s life. The family is God’s design for raising children, the place where they are loved without reserve, where they are nurtured and where they are given the time, space and care to flourish. The early years are where life’s foundations are built. Do we really want someone else to build the foundations of our children’s lives for 30 hours a week from the age of nine months?

BRITISH VALUES: UNPACKING THE BABUSHKA DOLL

When my daughter was about five years old, she was given a babushka doll. It disappeared almost immediately into a box, where it remained until we came across it years later when she was packing away her childhood. With a slight shudder, she dropped it into the nearest charity bag. Apparently, she had found the face scary and the idea of things existing inside other things even scarier, so she had never played with it and she was relieved to see it go. And so it is with British values: scary on the face of it, even scarier when you unpack it, and we would all be glad to see them go.

As I outlined in my previous blog, British values as a concept is nothing new. According to the Prime Minister, they are, after all, as solid and reliable as fish and chips and the Union flag. The problem with the shiny new version is that it’s not really about its face at all; it’s about social revolution playing dress up; about things hiding inside other things.

Let’s begin with the face of it – democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. So far, so good. Democracy is a human construct and so not a Christian value, but Romans 13:1 says: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established’. Titus 3:1 reminds us to ‘be subject to rulers and powers, to be obedient’ and 1 Peter 2:13-14 says we should ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors’, so it’s clear that we should support our democratically elected leaders and the institutions of the country.

Nor would people of faith argue against individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. The problem is, the respect and tolerance is anything but mutual. It’s rapidly becoming a one way street as Ofsted seeks to impose its monoculture. I have also written this week about Ofsted’s bullying of independent Orthodox Jewish schools in the cause of preparing children for life in modern Britain. Ofsted is extending its reach way beyond schools and into the social fabric of any communities which don’t comply. It’s social revolution – the reshaping of society by imposition from a government body. Not much liberty there then, and the face of British values is, on reflection, pretty scary.

So what’s inside the British values babushka doll? Let’s start with faith schools. There have been various calls for faith to be removed from our schools altogether – the Green Party has made it a point in its manifesto. It’s completely unworkable, of course, both because no government could afford to pick up the resulting bill, and also because no government is foolish enough to remove something that parents consistently want. So the new tack is to dilute the ethos by meddling with admissions procedures. Once the anti-faith school population reaches a critical mass, parents will start vetoing the faith content, leaving just the excellent education on offer. New thinking: don’t openly impose the monoculture, do it by stealth using secular parents.

Next layer: last autumn saw a new obsession with homophobic bullying, with LGBT rights becoming a British value.  Without any thought for what happens when the imposition of a view about one protected characteristic comes into direct conflict with another, Ofsted went off on their infamous hunt to root out homophobia. When faith schools pointed out that they didn’t have to teach anything that conflicted with their conscience and also that parental opt out meant that children in some schools weren’t being taught about LGBT issues, Ofsted found another way around the issue. They simply made the existence of homophobic bullying (although not initially of race, of the disabled or people of faith) a safeguarding issue. So now, whether or not the school teaches an SRE programme which includes LGBT, they fail on safeguarding. Law protecting conscience nil, Ofsted one.

The CHIPS programme which is currently being implemented in more than 90 schools around the country also takes a clever new route into the classroom. The programme is cross-curricular and centred on literacy and music, so there is no parental opt out.  Like British values, the programme has been around for several years without attracting much attention. Now suddenly it is becoming de rigueur as the LGBT lobby group seizes the opportunity for Ofsted to affirm its ideology.

The final, and scariest layer, is extremism. The careful placement of ‘neo-Nazi’  and ‘ISIS’ in speeches plays very effectively on public fear, allowing the government to implement measures such as the Prevent strategy that gain wide support, despite being itself extreme in its reach. Just as the last Parliament was dissolved, Home Secretary Theresa May delivered one such speech. The word ‘strong’ figured regularly, together with the aggressive rhetoric of victory through conflict. She also outlined the plan for ‘a step change in the way we help people to learn the English language. There will be new incentives and penalties, a sharp reduction in funding for translation services, and a significant increase in the funding available for English language training.’ Inspections of Orthodox Jewish schools in the last few weeks have borne out this newest British value – imposition of the English language is the latest way to reach into communities that don’t conform.

So, there’s the British values babushka doll. There are almost certainly more layers yet to be carved. The supreme irony is that the government is becoming exactly what it is trying to oppose – an extremist group which seeks to impose its singular ideology.

BRITISH VALUES: EXAMINING THE VACUUM

Horror vacui postulated Aristotle. Nature abhors a vacuum, so denser surrounding material moves in to fill the void. And so it is with British values – the vacuum created by Nicky Morgan et al who lobbed the issue into schools, left it to define itself, then used no-notice inspections to tear into anyone who didn’t guess the correct definition. Not necessarily the best method for constructing cohesive policy.

British values are nothing new. They emerged in 2007; a government response to a country splintering into subgroups based on ethnicity and, therefore, religion and belief. Remember community cohesion? At the time, the school in which I was teaching was marked down by Ofsted because the pupils were all white and apparently middle class. The Chair of Governors proposed (quite seriously) hiring coaches to take our pupils to a deprived area of a city inhabited by immigrant communities. He appeared hurt when I suggested that this was more than a little recidivist; redolent of paying to view the inmates at Bedlam or the foundlings at Coram. We left that practice behind with the eighteenth century.

We were annoyed at the injustice done by Ofsted, but we fruitlessly argued our case, then moved on. Expectations seemed so much clearer; everyone was so much more civilised when discussing the issues involved. So what happened in the intervening eight years? The ideology of liberal secularism gained ground. Religion came to be seen as an outdated, often toxic, creed with a resulting move against faith in our schools and in the public square. Marriage was peremptorily redefined, causing a significant shift in social orthodoxy, and after 9/11 the world seemed a much more dangerous place.

In July 2014, Nicky Morgan replaced Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education. She was already Minister for Women, and these two roles were combined with Equalities Minister. Within days, she appointed Stonewall’s former head of education as her special adviser. Hiding behind a knee-jerk response to Trojan Horse, she rushed legislation through requiring all schools to actively promote protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 – an action which she herself now describes as ‘a dramatic change in education policy’ and an action for which the DfE was criticised by the Commons Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, for failing to facilitate adequate consultation. But the DfE went ahead anyway. All the ingredients of a perfect storm combined.

The resulting actions of Ofsted, together with their own admission that the reliability of their inspections is questionable, are now well documented.  As Ofsted inspects itself, it’s impossible to hold it to account. But two things seem to have eluded Nicky Morgan in her frenzied drive to prepare children for life in modern Britain. One is that, however much she likes to make it all ‘a matter for Ofsted’ she herself created the hierarchy of protected characteristics which sent Ofsted off on its hunt for homophobia in faith schools. The other is the wilful misinterpretation of ‘active promotion’.

Although the requirement is to actively promote respect for people, Ofsted is inspecting the promotion of respect for belief itself.  As Fiona Bruce MP said in a commons debate: ‘It is entirely right that we should respect other people, including those with other beliefs, and to respect their right to hold those beliefs, but this is being conflated with a requirement to respect all other beliefs, which is quite a different thing altogether. I respect Scientologists, but I do not respect Scientology. This confusion is very real. It appears in inspectors’ minds. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, wrote of schools teaching “respect for…various faiths”, making no distinction between the believers and the beliefs’.

Ms Morgan continues to prove ‘unwilling to “lay down rules” about how the requirement was to be interpreted’. She suggests instead that Heads might like to consult their governors, neatly overlooking the fact that Trojan Horse was itself caused by poor governance going unchecked. So, in addition to Ofsted’s chosen interpretation of British values, here are a range of other definitions:-

  • David Cameron: as British as the Union flag, as football, as fish and chips.
  • Nicky Morgan: It’s about that shared history or heritage.
  • David Starkey: queuing, drunkenness, nostalgia, loving pets, self-loathing, wit and eccentricity.
  • Tristram Hunt: more than pictures of the Queen and double decker buses … Nicky Morgan clearly does not believe that LGBT rights are British values. They are.
  • Nick Clegg: moderate Muslims in Britain are key to safe and happy communities.
  • Theresa May: not calling for a flag to be flown from every building, or demanding that everyone drinks Yorkshire Tea and watches Coronation Street [but] the means by which we have made our multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society succeed.

No clarity there, then, in the warm fuddle of jingoism, cultural history and opportunistic identity politics.  Perhaps the clearest definition comes from a Spectator blog suggesting that rather than over-egg our Britishness, we should school our young people in the creed that unites the West. And that creed is not liberal democracy, but ‘secular humanism, which is more basic, more concerned with moral vision … the public ideology of the West is secular in a neutral sense’. People of faith, apparently, just have to suck it up.

Which all leads back to Sir Edward Leigh’s contribution to a recent Parliamentary debate.  ‘Ofsted’, he suggested, ‘seems to be guilty of trying to enforce a kind of state imposed orthodoxy … a stultifying conformist ideology that is enforced on all people at all times’. It has filled the vacuum; British values can be whatever the DfE and Oftsed want to define them as being.

Where does this leave Christians? With the government, as Sir Edward says, ‘happy for people to be slightly Christian, slightly Jewish or slightly Muslim, so long as that is just a pretty façade for agreeing and conforming with an unforgivingly liberal ideology’. The future for those who want to live out their faith in all aspects of their being remains an open question.

 

Next week: British values: unpacking the babushka doll