Clash of the agendas

What does the government want to do for young children?

Give them a better start in life is the obvious answer. But how
– and is it now chasing two different agendas which will ultimately
trip each other up?

In the comprehensive spending review the government announced
the setting up of children’s centres to offer a range of
services for families and young children in England’s 20 most
disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Although nobody yet knows much detail about these centres, they
are likely to build on local Sure Start programmes – services which
are sharply focused on improving outcomes for children by
supporting and improving the quality of the parental care they
receive. Yet as well as continuing the work of strengthening
parents’ relationships with their babies and toddlers, a key
function of the new centres will be to provide day care – to enable
and encourage these same parents to go out and get jobs. The new
government unit overseeing the centres is to be run jointly by the
Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Work and
Pensions, underlining the importance of their role in the
government’s welfare to work programme. The new unit brings
together responsibility for early years, child care and Sure Start
and its budget will rise to £1.5bn by 2005-6, funding an extra
250,000 new day care places.

There is now a large body of research showing that a
child’s experiences in the first two years are crucial to its
future emotional health, and many with professional and academic
expertise in child development believe that one-to-one care by a
consistent and committed carer, usually the mother, is the best way
of providing this. The educational charity Watch (What about the
Children) believes that far from investing in day care the
government should be spending its money on financially supporting
mothers to spend longer with their babies before returning to work.
They argue that it makes more sense to pay mothers to care for
their young children than to train and pay strangers to do the job
for them.

Sue Clasen who chairs the charity says: “The best thing the
government could do for babies is to raise the status of mothering
as a job. At the moment we are trying to fit babies into an adult
agenda. But they have their own agenda and until we understand
their emotional needs and can satisfy them we put them at

Specifically, Watch is concerned about the risks of attachment
disorder – the disruption of healthy emotional development which
can result when a baby is not able to bond with its caregiver.
Attachment disorder has been linked to behavioural problems,
attention deficit disorder and mental illness.

Clasen says: “A baby needs consistent one-to-one care. In day
care the person looking after the baby is likely to keep changing.
I’ve worked in a nursery myself and you can see babies
looking around for a familiar face until eventually they just give

“We’re not saying that all babies who go into day care
will develop attachment disorder but children who are not
emotionally attached are at risk.”

Watch has been accused of trying to make working mothers feel
guilty, and of supporting a reactionary agenda of pushing women
back into the home. But the charity claims it is simply putting the
case for babies. “For pre-verbal children the ideal is a mother
supported financially and socially and allowed to return to the
workplace on a very gradual basis. An abrupt all-day separation at
18 or 29 weeks is not the right answer.”

But Watch’s claims are contentious. The Daycare Trust,
which lobbied for a children’s centre in every neighbourhood,
quotes research which directly contradicts claims that mothers who
stay at home are best for babies.1

The impact of day care on children, it argues, depends crucially
on the quality of care in the child’s home, and the quality
of the day care. It agrees that young children need stable and
continuous care but argues that they can cope with several carers
“provided they are the same adults over time and that secure
relationships with those individuals are formed”. The trust cites
several studies including a government evaluation of early
excellence centres – a model on which children’s centres may
be based – which found they enhanced children’s social,
intellectual and physical development. Daycare Trust senior policy
officer Megan Pacey argues that even without considering the
indirect benefits to children of their parents’ employment,
good day care has clear and demonstrable advantages over
children’s home environments if their parents for any reason
are unable to offer the care they need. And for all parents, the
centres should offer a range of support services in one place,
tailored to local needs and demands, including the opportunity to
take a break.

Although the Daycare Trust is delighted that resources are to be
made available for a network of children’s centres, Pacey is
disappointed that they will, like Sure Start, be available only in
selected neighbourhoods.

“The chancellor is proposing a half-way measure, but
universality is key especially as two-thirds of children in poverty
don’t live in the 20 most poorest neighbourhoods.”

Pacey points out too that there is a huge question mark over how
and by whom the new service is to be delivered. “Ninety per cent of
child care currently is provided by the private sector – and that
won’t work for poor families. The options seem to be either
build a new public sector framework or fund the voluntary sector to
do the job. Either way there are going to be serious infrastructure
costs.” Some people are assuming that early years partnerships will
take on responsibility for commissioning the centres, but Pacey
fears these are not sufficiently robust in terms of skills, clout,
or statutory status and believes local government is better placed
to take on the job.

Sue Owen, head of the early years and child care unit at the
National Children’s Bureau, warmly welcomes the increased
investment in services for young children, and especially the
announcement of an integrated service for under fives.

She says: “Split budgets have been a big problem in the past. It
is difficult to pull together money from different funding streams
because they often don’t dovetail, so the new unit makes a
lot of sense. But there is always a danger that you try to do too
many things and don’t do any of them very well. The
government has a lot of targets to hit, and it will be a challenge
for local service planners both to hit those targets for the
government and to do something meaningful for local people.”

For Mary MacLeod of the National Family and Parenting Institute
there is absolutely no contradiction between supporting parents to
spend more time with their young children and providing child care
to help them into work.

“We absolutely do need more financial support and workplace
policies to enable parents to stay at home longer with young
children and to return to work gradually. But we also need more
child care. There has been appalling lack of child care in this
country for 20 years compared with other European countries many of
which have both better family allowances and parental leave, and
better child care provision.

“There is research that makes it very clear that the first two
years of life are vital in terms of emotional development, but
poverty is much more damaging to children’s life chances than
attending day care. Parents have very different needs and we need
to have a lot of different ways of attacking the things that get
between children and a better start in life.”

Quality Matters: Ensuring Childcare
Benefits Children
, Daycare Trust, 2001

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