Undo the wrapping

The education secretary has announced that “schools will be open
from 8am to 6pm in a bid to help working parents”. At the Labour
party conference, the prime minister confirmed “wraparound care”
for parents of all three to 14 year olds all year round. It sounds
great: parents can leave their children in a safe environment to
suit themselves.

The teaching unions have given a qualified welcome but also raised
the core question of who will provide the care. They are worried
that teachers will be expected to work extra hours.

I have further reservations. The initiative does not spring
primarily from a desire to help children. The main purpose is the
New Labour one of getting both parents or lone parents to work. In
short, the economy is more important than family life.

The proposal is not new. During the second world war, the number of
day nurseries with long hours and even residential nurseries
multiplied so that women whose husbands were in the forces could
work in factories. Thousands of women did take jobs but doubts were
expressed about the effects on their children. Lady Marjory Allen,
a supporter of nursery schools, worried that young children would
not cope with spending a very long time away from their mothers. A
famous study (D Burlingham and A Freud, Children in War-Time, 1940)
emphasised that the experience could be painful for children and
required very skilled staff.

Today’s children will not be facing the trauma of war but even
school-age children may find difficulties in being apart from their
families for extended periods, not just in term time but also
during the school holidays. Hopefully, the care will be of good
quality, but even where it is young children are likely to spend a
substantial part of the day within the confines of one institution.

Inevitably, those days will conform to a timetable and a routine.
They will receive group care, not individual care. Staff, like
teachers but unlike most parents, will change, depart and reappear.
Obviously, children benefit from routine and group interaction, but
the danger of wraparound care is that it becomes the predominant
part of their life and so minimises the amount of time in which
they relate with parents, play with the children next door, and
just explore in their own ways and own time their home

I hope that no children will be left in schools for the full
10-hour day. But some are going to be there from early morning and
some until the evening.

I often meet our seven-year-old grandson from school at 3.15pm. At
times, he comes out tired. Children in school care for much longer
periods will be even more vulnerable to exhaustion. Before
launching its scheme, the government should have researched the
physical as well as the emotional effects on children.

Some parents have to work long hours to get a decent income and to
pursue a career. The government has encouraged this by linking tax
credits with working families. It would have been much better to
have put the money into child benefit (which is also much simpler
to claim) and allowed parents a real choice about how much time
they have with their children.

Wraparound care is also part of another New Labour trend:
centralisation. Education is controlled by central government
through a standard curriculum, tests and inspections. Local health
services are being absorbed into more distant and larger

The latest scheme is neighbourhood centralisation. Already
educational, social work and some health services are being pushed
onto one campus on the unproven assumption that it makes for better
communication and outcomes. Significantly, the recent report by HM
Inspectorate of Education in Scotland found that community schools
(those integrated with other services) have not fully lived up to
expectations. wraparound care will probably be added to these
super-size agencies. Simultaneously, scattered local day care and
other small services will close down. The drive towards
centralisation will undermine community life.

Last month, Sylvia Watson died, aged 91. She was the great
children’s officer of Hertfordshire and served in the children’s
department for the whole of its life because she was committed to
children, not a career. Her department was small enough for her to
know every child and every member of staff. Her strength was in
making relationships. Is there a place for people like her in the
new welfare empires?

Bob Holman has recently retired as community worker at a
locally run project in Easterhouse, Glasgow.

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