Thursday, August 30, 2007

Asking too much of preschool education

A couple of years ago I was talking to a normally sensible Liberal Democrat politico about preschool education. I said that while I was sceptical about Labour's grandiose plans, I thought institutions like playgroups were thoroughly good things. He scoffed and said that they sounded like "something out of Lord Bonkers".

Well, the evidence on schemes like Sure Start is coming in, and it is disappointing for those who saw it as the start of massive state intervention in the early years. And there are signs that its advocates are a little chastened by its failure.

Madeleine Bunting has a piece on Comment is Free today. She rightly says that it does not matter if middle-class families are benefiting from Sure Start too. In fact she might have pointed out that they pay taxes too and it must surely be a good thing if children from different social classes mix.

She then goes on to say:
We need this kind of social infrastructure - not to park our children in from dawn to dusk, that's not what I'm defending - but as the kind of institutional mainstay which can moderate how communities can fragment. Playgroups, parent and toddler groups, a few hours of nursery provision: all can give a lifeline to overstretched families. It's much too soon to make the kind of judgements about their future we've seen this week.

I still fear this is expecting too much of preschool education, but if Labour's plans now come down to "playgroups, parent and toddler groups, a few hours of nursery provision" then I shall have no trouble supporting them. I hope this more realistic spirit will be found in the Liberal Democrats too.

There is also an interesting article by Tanya Byron - clinical psychologist and TV parenting guru - in The Times today. She writes:

A variety of parenting theories, books, articles and TV programmes aim to enable parents to find the “right way” to manage their child’s behaviour, but seem in fact to muddle and disempower. Parents are overwhelmed by advice and tips from an industry growing out of the most basic and instinctive aspect of life — child rearing.

I have become part of this industry in writing books and making TV programmes about children and families with behavioural problems. However, as the success of the media-parenting industry grows, I find that the mothers and fathers whom I meet each week in my clinics seem more and more confused.

Again, the view that parenting is an activity needing expert guidance, if not expert practitioners, is not having the benign consequences its adherents hoped for.

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