Blind feminism has hurt British children

The "Sure Start" daycare scheme is typical of British Labour's failure

For ten years I have been advising various elements of new Labour on how to improve the care of small children. Alas, almost everything the Government has done has been the opposite of what was needed. No wonder Britain came bottom of Unicef's league table of the happiness and welfare of children in industrialised nations....

The great obstacle for new Labour was "the wimmin". The party bought into a "men in skirts" version of feminism that is vigorously hostile to parents being at home when their children are small. Nowhere was this clearer than in the Sure Start programme.

Here was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to alter the life chances of the most disadvantaged children. After the success of similar American schemes, such as Highscope, it could have provided psychiatric, medical and practical support to break the cycle of deprivation. But as Norman Glass, Sure Start's founding director, complained after he had resigned, it went in the wrong direction. A significant proportion of the budget has been wasted on the provision of group day care - including expensive and unnecessary buildings. Although Polly Toynbee, the principal media cheerleader for Labour's child policies, has maintained frequently that group day care is not harmful, the evidence of countless studies contradicts her.

I spent a week in Copenhagen observing 18-month-olds in what is often regarded as the best day nursery in the world. The Danish Government holds it up as the model of its system (three quarters of Danish children are in day-care nurseries by age 18 months), and representatives from all three of our political parties have been shown around it. But the most unbiased of observers would have found it hard to avoid the conclusion that the toddlers were upset by their care. Some became aggressive, others withdrawn, but it was horrifying to see the contrast between their wellbeing at home, where I also observed them, and their manifest distress while at the nursery.

Although I admire Toynbee's writing on many subjects, she epitomises the blindness to evidence found in this area. When Jay Belsky, the distinguished psychologist, published the findings of the Sure Start evaluation in the British Medical Journal, it turned out that the programme had not only failed to help the children, but had also led to worse outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged.

For instance, a survey of all the studies on its impact found that whereas 41 per cent of children in day care for more than 20 hours a week were insecure, this was true of only 26 per cent of toddlers cared for full-time by their mothers. More recently, a definitive study of more than 1,000 British children by Penelope Leach revealed that children who experienced day care were more likely to be disturbed than children cared for by minders or by grandparents. Most recently, several studies have demonstrated heightened cortisol levels and proneness to attention deficit disorder in children in day care. The most consistent finding is that such children are more likely to be aggressive.

Interestingly, few if any of the new Labour elite opt for group day care for their own children. They prefer one-on-one nannies. I once heard a new Labour woman minister say, "if women really want to sit around all day looking after their children, OK". Like the vast majority of senior politicians, she had never done so - otherwise she would have known that it is nothing less than the most exacting of roles.

Real feminism requires us to reevaluate the roles of both men and women. Of course, that means women having careers as men do - but not at the expense of their role as mothers. Likewise, it entails men becoming much more involved in caring for their small children and investing less in their careers - at present, by far the most significant pillar of identity for both sexes in the English-speaking world.

In most of mainland Western Europe nearly all children under a year old are cared for by a parent and in Southern Europe most under3s are too. We could do the same in Britain. What is desperately needed is a government whose main goal is to correct the balance of the household economy that has been wrecked by the market and its workaholic ways.



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