Don’t send mothers to work

Does the government’s child care strategy really focus on
best outcomes for children? Or is it driven by the desire to
increase maternal employment? These objectives are not necessarily
compatible. My concern is that the needs of the child are too far
down the agenda.

In setting out its vision, the government emphasises the need to
widen parental access to child care, by increasing both subsidy and
supply. This entails large financial commitments, doubling child
care spending over three years plus £725m on the child care
tax credit. To justify that spending, the government wants to see
significant increases in maternal employment. The
government’s claim that work is the best route out of poverty
is uncontroversial, but many mothers, especially lone mothers, are
reluctant to go out to work when their children are young. Is their
reluctance reasonable? Uncomfortably for government, there is
recent evidence to suggest young children do not benefit from
institutional care.

Last November the Institute for Social and Economic Research
released the results of a study by John Ermisch and Marco
Francesconi into the effects of parental employment on children. It
found that more maternal employment leads to slower emotional
development, lower educational attainment and higher risk of
unemployment. Government-sponsored research is consistent with many
of these findings. A report by Exeter University for the DfES
showed that parental involvement in the form of “at-home good
parenting” has the biggest positive effect on children’s
achievement and adjustment. London University’s report on the
Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (Eppe) found that
under-twos who spent more time in daycare were more likely to have
antisocial behaviour at age three. The most important influence on
children’s behaviour and ability was the extent to which
parents engaged in constructive activity with them.

All this suggests that the best way to improve outcomes for
children is to support parents engaging with them, focusing on
programmes that sustain maternal involvement, reduce isolation and
depression in mothers, and encourage them to be hands-on parents.
Polling evidence tells us that most mothers want more time with
their children, not less, and that most working mums feel stressed
by having to be both breadwinner and carer. If, as these studies
show, children are disadvantaged by daycare, then surely it is time
to find solutions to enable mothers to be with their young
children, instead of sending them reluctantly out to work.

Jill Kirby is chairperson of the Family Policy Project
at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Offer kids choice

I can’t remember what school lunches taste like. Not
because they weren’t memorable – they were, although for all
the wrong reasons. Or because I left school a long time ago – I
finished my A-levels last June. But because for all but the first
year of secondary school, I avoided them. Lunches at our school
didn’t taste terrible, and weren’t over-priced as
school lunches go, but even as a 12 year old I knew they were

Young people do care about what they eat, and not just because
they want to look like the people they see on television. We care
about what we eat because we understand the implications for our
health and well-being, and because we value our bodies and the
benefits of nutritious food to our physical and mental agility.

The first day I was allowed to leave school at lunchtime, I did.
But it was a long search for a food outlet in the local area that
sold food I wanted. We were surrounded by takeaways, and newsagents
filled with chocolate bars. Schools know that they have a captive
audience among primary school children and the younger years of
secondary schools – but even older children rarely have much idea
of where to eat in the local area. We are taught to trust our
schools, and to regard them as a source of authority in our lives.
Why, then, do they exploit us and fail us in this crucial area? It
has been shown that young children have difficulty distinguishing
between children’s television shows and the advertising in
the breaks. Why is it so hard to accept that this may extend in to
educational establishments? When we move from classroom to
lunchroom, from facts and figures to nutritionally empty, high fat
and sugar foods, isn’t it natural that we should accept these
eating habits as correct and carry them away with our homework?

Eventually, I started buying my lunches from a local bakery,
where I was treated like an adult consumer, with a wide choice of
food prepared as I watched. Why are young people not given these
rights in schools? As I got older, I became increasingly concerned
about where my food was coming from – was it organic? Fairtrade?
Locally produced?

With the help of the charity Envision some friends and I set up
an alternative canteen one day a week in our lunchroom, selling
home-cooked, healthy food for affordable prices. There was no
contest. The school canteen closed early that day as our classmates
voted with their feet and moved to eat our food instead of the
chips and beans that had been forced upon them since they began

The way forward is clear: the government must listen to the
pupils. We are discerning consumers and innovative thinkers, and
the overhaul of our school meals system should be carried out in
conjunction with us. We need choice and variety, not just a healthy
“alternative” but a range of healthy foods geared towards different
tastes, complemented by fresh fruit, juices and water – not by Mars
bars, Coke and Pepsi. Who knows, if this kind of change had begun
earlier, maybe I would be able to tell you how school food

Kierra Box is a co-founder of youth empowerment
organisation Hands Up For…

Schools could prevent crime

January’s Audit Commission and National Audit Office
reports on youth justice rightly present an upbeat assessment of
recent reforms but both highlight weaknesses in the education of
offenders in the community. There is widespread agreement that a
good education is the key both to preventing youngsters getting
into trouble in the first place and rehabilitating those who do
offend, particularly those whose crimes have led them into custody.
The reports repeat the depressingly familiar statistics linking
truancy, exclusion underachievement and delinquency, although
shockingly, the Audit Commission confesses that the precise number
of children outside education is simply not known. Despite a
plethora of government targets to improve participation and
achievement, it is clear that schools are finding it difficult
enough to hang on to the disruptive children already on their roll,
let alone offer places to offenders fresh from a spell in custody.
It concludes that the government should do more to provide schools
with incentives and the resources to include all young people and
not just those most likely to pass exams.

Research undertaken for the Rethinking Crime and Punishment
initiative found that spending more on an inclusive education
policy would enjoy popular support. Three-quarters of people think
schools and colleges have an important role in preventing young
people from offending and re-offending, with teachers seen as more
important in this regard than police, courts or custody. Asked what
would do most to reduce crime, better school discipline and more
constructive activities for young people were ranked among the four
most favoured options – along with better parenting and more police
officers. When we asked how the public would spend a notional
£10m on dealing with crime, the most popular option was to set
up teams in 30 cities to work with children at risk. For young
people consulted by a national YMCA project, tackling bullying and
truancy was a key approach to crime prevention. Interestingly too,
suspension and exclusion for bullies was not seen as an effective
means of punishment as it was viewed as giving offenders a
“holiday” from school.

Under 18s are detained in prisons and other secure units at the
rate of more than one every two hours. Investment in prevention and
rehabilitation through better-resourced schools would not only be
an effective policy but a popular one too.

Rob Allen is director of Rethinking Crime and Punishment
and a member of the Youth Justice Board.

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