Why ‘Sure Start’ is a Sure-Fire Way Not to Start Caring for Our Young
Civitas, 29 September 2004
In his speech at the Labour Party Conference yesterday, Prime Minister Tony Blair listed ten policy objectives whose accomplishment he intends to make the central task of any Labour administration that might be returned for a third term at the next general election.
One of these ten objectives is the provision of child-care facilities for as many children between the ages of 3 and 16 whose parents wish to avail themselves of it between the hours of 8am and 6pm. The manifest purpose of the objective is to enable all parents, especially mothers, to undertake full-time paid work.
In the case of school-age children, their schools can clearly serve for the purpose during the periods between 8 and 6 that fall outside formal schooling.
In the case of pre-school children, achieving the objective will necessitate hugely expanding nursery provision. This is something the present government has already begun to do through its Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative that forms part of a wider government programme called ‘Sure Start’. The ostensible aim of Sure Start to support the career aspirations of parents, whilst simultaneously improving the cognitive and emotional development of their children, by extending childcare provision to all.
The Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative has committed the government to creating 45,000 new childcare places in England by the end of 2004, places largely intended for the poorest families.
On the very same day as the Prime Minister’s speech was reported on the front pages of today’s papers, the inside pages of one national broad-sheet contain a report of the results of a survey of current pay-levels in the child-care sector that make for disturbing reading. The survey, carried out by and reported in Nursery World, reveals the government has managed to expand nursery provision very rapidly by simply luring staff from private nurseries through offering massively greater pay for what is essentially the same task.
While the Government might in the immediate term have been able to expand the number of nursery places by simply throwing money at the task, money that has been set aside under the Sure Start Programme, how it has done so – namely, by ‘poaching’ staff from the private sector by offering substantially more than the going market rate for the job – suggests that, unless money continues to be thrown at the task indefinitely, there are simply not enough trained staff to enable its objective to be met, unless some other public service is contracted or taxes are raised.
The government has not identified any public service it intends to contract to finance its expansion of nursery provision. Nor have voters exhibited the slightest sign of willingness to pay more in tax than they currently are to finance an expansion of nursery places. It follows, as day follows night, that the government will fail to meet its objective of providing affordable high-quality nursery places for all.
That it will fail might not be such a bad thing. Studies have revealed that mothers of very young children have, in general, no wish to be denied the opportunity of caring for their very young children themselves, for at least part of the day. Moreover, other studies have shown very young children tend to thrive better when cared for by their mothers than when cared for by others.
The idea of universal child-care provision is a radical feminist pipe-dream. For everyone else, especially all who care more about the welfare of mothers and their small children than about fulfilling the feminist agenda, it is or should represent a nightmare. Mercifully, given the manifest political unfeasibility of the idea, we can be thankful it will never be become a reality. Unfortunately, until the government fully wakes up to that fact, it will continue to sleep-walk supposing the idea feasible, wrecking private-sector nursery provision in the process. Nice one, Tony.