There was a letter to the editor of the Telegraph last Friday which I read with some interest. Written by MP Elizabeth Truss, Education and Child Care Minister, it had the heading “Nursery standards”. She wrote: “Sir – You claim that the Government’s child care reforms will diminish small nurseries. The opposite is true: we are giving providers more flexibility to hire better qualified staff instead of being compelled to maximise staff numbers. We will reverse the decline in the number of child minders by creating agencies that will do the paperwork and allow them to focus on quality care. Britain’s adult-to-child ratios are more restrictive than those in many European countries that have good child care. We are not saying that every nursery worker must have C grades at GCSE, but we want to give nurseries greater freedom to hire better-qualified professionals. Where they do so, ratios need not be so restrictive. World-class early education and care is what really matters for children.”
What is this letter really about? Sending very young children out all day to nurseries (to receive a “world-class education”) so that their mothers can be freed to go back to work as soon as possible after birth. This year we are celebrating the centenary of George Orwell, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. What a field-day he would have had with Elizabeth Truss’s choice of words, as well as her outlook. “Providers”, “agencies”, “quality care”, “ratios”, “professionals” and so on. It is positively Orwellian; Newspeak for the official modern way of bringing up young children – almost entirely outside the home. Janet Daley, in her column in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, echoes Orwell, writing “How have parents of this generation been persuaded that the sovietising of day care – herding children into nurseries and registered centres – is the best solution for them?”
I have occasionally mentioned before in blogs that I am a member of an organisation called “Mothers At Home Matter”. The title speaks for itself. This organisation isn’t judging mothers who choose to go out to work rather than bring up their children themselves (though it believes that the government should consider this as an acceptable alternative and not do its best to persuade mothers otherwise), but it is very critical of officials and people like Elizabeth Truss who assume without question that the best “early education and care” is given by “professionals” (with Grade C in English and Maths) rather than by mothers.
Last Friday morning I happened to listen to Aung San Suu Kyi on Desert Island Discs on Radio 4. She said many thought-provoking and impressive things, but most especially – for me – were her comments about her childhood. As is known, her father, General Aung San, who led Burma to independence after the War, was assassinated in 1947 when his daughter was aged two. Aung San Suu Kyi was brought up with her two brothers by her mother. Her mother was clearly an enormous influence on her. Suu Kyi described her as “Very disciplined, very courageous, very strict” and comments that she was grateful for this upbringing as it helped her later on to cope with the long and lonely rigours of the years of house arrest she was forced to endure by the Burmese military dictatorship. Her mother, a woman of strength and fortitude, condemned selfishness, taught her the idea of public service and not to waste anything. She remarked that she adjusted very quickly to the long solitary life imposed on her by the Junta. Asked by interviewer Kirsty Young how she had coped, she replied that it was her early discipline and training -her upbringing – as well as learning to meditate, which had made it possible.
I mention this to show, admittedly in an unusual instance, the importance of the influence a mother can bring to a child’s formative years. If Ang San Suu Kyi had been raised as an infant by “professionals” in a nursery while her mother worked long hours at a career outside the home, she would hardly have emerged as the woman she is today. How well would she have withstood the extraordinary pressures she later encountered in her life? This question is obviously hypothetical but my wider point stands: children generally develop and flourish best when they spend their early, pre-school years largely at home, cared for by a parent who knows and loves them better than semi-trained young girls in impersonal state nurseries. Babies and very young children need to learn attachment, to bond with one loving person, not different and ever-changing members of staff in “sovietised” state care. “Mother knows best” is an old adage; but mothers usually do, following their instincts, their common sense and their hearts. Feminism and successive British governments have bred a generation of women who think that raising their own children is boring and uncreative compared with the exciting life of the office. Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother would not have thought so.