Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Let me get this straight

" Of course we would love to build some of our super nurseries—that you have not seen, we have some really magnificent new nurseries all over the county—but we cannot. In the meantime head-teachers are seized of an agenda that says achievement begins by getting children disposed to learn and you have to capture them young. Where we have that conclusion from head-teachers and we have spaces and we have a commitment from staff to be trained, if they are not already trained, and we have quality criteria then I say, "Let us do it." At the moment it is for four year olds, let us do it. I would rather do that than not provide it."

That's our old friend, Graham Badman, Head of Becta, Head of the Home Education Review, speaking. He agrees that head teachers want to capture our children, and that you have to get the children disposed to learn. Capture them young. We've heard that before. Or something like it: "He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future." (Adolf Hitler)

The government have been taking leaves out of Nazi Germany's book. They want our children. But they don't want our children to be our children anymore. They want them to go to school at four years old. So send their mothers to work. Then the children will have nice happy healthy well-adjusted relationships with strangers at nursery, and with other small children who, of course, make useless role models.

Nurseries, yes. I worked in one. It was a well-equipped, pleasant nursery. There were well-motivated, good staff. They had a lot of sense at that nursery. If the child was ill, for example, Mum or Dad or other adult got a phone call. Mostly, Mum turned up to take her baby home. Once, though, the staff rang the mother of an ill baby. The mother's mobile phone was turned off. And the father's mobile was switched off too. What could be so important that you were out of touch with the strangers who were looking after your child, parents?

I saw a lot of children in that nursery. I saw many children crying and asking for Mum. When they couldn't get Mum, they hitched, trailed, crawled, bawled after, one of the fairly youthful staff members whom they had known them the longest.

It was a good nursery. Lots of common sense. Lots of caring. In a vague sort of way.

The carers were, for the most part, lovely. They did their best. But they weren't Mum. They weren't family. They cared, certainly, but they didn't love. They hadn't given birth to these tiny people. They weren't Mum.

It killed me. Little tiny innocent children all bewildered, with that puzzled and searching look on their faces. Sometimes, it became too much for them and they retired to a corner to lie down and stare blankly at a wall. But, oh, later on when they were reunited with Mum or Dad or Gran... their faces glowed and they sprang to life after the day they'd spent waiting for the real event.

The return of Mum. The rescue. The beginning of real time. Of life.

Have you been inside a nursery, Mr. Badman? Have you worked in one? For a day? A few hours?

My guess is no. If you had, you wouldn't talk as you did to the Select Committee on Education and Employment.

"...there are schools that can offer a vision for education for four year olds. Appropriately trained staff will make sure it is a different curriculum for four year olds from what they would get as a rising-five. Let us do it. It may be a long, thin room, and I have been to Carswell several times, but the quality of what those kids get there is great. I have spoken to parents who are absolutely enthused by how their child has been changed by the benefit of that."

So says Mr. Badman about nursery education provision.

Of course parents are enthusiastic about good nursery provision. It leaves them free to work, to make money, without feeling that they are failing their children. Education for four year olds. What do four year olds need to know? How to play, how to learn that they are loved and appreciated for what they are, not an economic pawn in the great game that none but a few people win at... Do they have to be educated at four? Your type of education, Mr. Badman, where they're instructed and tested?

I had a strange experience a few years ago. A mother I knew at the school gate had a new baby - a beautiful little red-headed daughter. The mother took her maternity leave, and I saw her one day, waiting for her elder child to walk out of school. "What a beauty," I said of her baby. Her face was pleased but then a troubled expression appeared. "What is it?" I asked.

The woman hitched her baby up. "I am supposed to go back to work next week..." She was crying. "But I can't leave her. I really can't..."

The baby looked over her shoulder; an innocent, a lovely rosebud, mildly curious at her surroundings. I spent ten minutes reassuring her mother that it was fine to care, natural to wish to spend the fleeting baby months with her new daughter. That I had to bolster her already-made decision surprised me. What is more natural than raising your own baby? What better start, for all your educating, experienced-staffed nurseries, can a little one have?

I have no doubt that the mother of the little rosebud has done the right thing. She has embraced her true nature. She has heard the cry of her little one, and decided to respond to that voice.

What job could ever compare with that?


  1. I worked in a nursery in the mid eighties when I was a young single parent and my experience echoes yours almost exactly. My post as nursery assistant (for which I had no training apart from parenthood) was a job creation scheme, and was the only job I could find despite having gone back to school at 18 to get my a levels when my daughter was a year old. Oh the irony of the position I found myself in when my daughter was 3-4. I had to leave her in the care of (very lovely) others so I could travel 40 miles to look after other people's children 3 days a week.
    The nursery was nice enough and caring enough. All the nursery assistants were in their late teens or very early twenties, a couple of us were mums. The nursery nurses were efficient and organised but only one of them was what I would call caring. The organiser had a background in nursing and rarely came out of her office. The attitude of some of the senior staff to the parents was appalling. They considered that they knew the children better than the parents, which really angered me, being a parent myself. These staff may have spent time with the child and got to know them quite well, but as you say they didn't LOVE them and didn't have to. It certainly wasn't an intentionally abusive place and I only ever saw the children treated with care and, for the most part, respect, but of necessity the place had to be regimented in order for the day to 'flow', which meant trips to the toilet at certain times during the day, lots of lining up to go the the dining room or go outside, compulsory naps at the same time every day, whether the children were tired or not. If any of us nursery assistant felt a child needed some tlc or extra attention it had to be done almost surreptitiously. I am sure my experiences had a lot to do with my decision to home ed my three youngest children fifteen years later.
    At the time being a working mum was considered abnormal, even deviant, but now the pendulum seems to have swung so far in the other direction that loving, caring parents believe they have little to offer their children, that experts know better and that they are doing their children a disservice if they don't send their children to be looked after by others. Very sad.

  2. (Shudder). The more I read about GB's aspirations for our children, the more I feel mighty uneasy about what his recommendations will be.

    I am eternally glad that we don't have to consider nursery as an option - temperementally the Jenklett is as far removed from a routine baby as is possible (despite what certain family members think ;-)).

    She would be labelled as "problematic" or "difficult" if someone tried to put her down for a nap if she wasn't tired, or make her eat if she wasn't hungry. I feel that at home she is learning good lessons about listening carefully to her body and responding to her own rhythms.