‘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 for ‘social 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?