When Ruth Kelly became Education Secretary last December, one of her female colleagues, angry at having been passed over for promotion, denounced her as a ‘cow’ who insisted on skipping Commons debates in order to spend time with her young children. In fact, in her dedication to family life, Ms Kelly seemed a refreshing change from the archetypal Blair Babe who views motherhood as a kind of lazy option for those women who lack the talent to run a small government department.
But perhaps the strain of rushing home every evening to read Topsy and Tim is proving too much. This week Ruth Kelly announced that she wishes schools to extend their opening hours from six and a half hours a day to ten or eleven. Just one thing is certain about this proposal: it isn’t being done in the children’s interest. You can almost hear the cries of relief uttered by the working mums of school-age children. No longer will they have to show clients the door at quarter past three. No more will they have to excuse themselves from strategy meetings in order to cook frozen pizza fingers. Instead the brats can be dropped off at school before breakfast, and won’t have to be collected until half past six, by which time they will have been fed, entertained and be ready for bed. The only shame is that Ms Kelly has not so far indicated that the state education system will also be taking on board the responsibility for bathing the nation’s children and reading them a bedtime story.
In one sense it might seem odd for conservatives to raise objections to extended school opening hours. Private boarding schools — Ruth Kelly’s alma mater, Millfield, among them — are, of course, open 24 hours a day, and few accuse them of putting parents’ interests above those of pupils. But there are important differences. Boarding schools balance their long hours during term time with extended holidays. Ruth Kelly, by contrast, wants state schools to cater for their pupils during the holidays too. ‘Kelly hours’, as the proposed extended opening times have come to be called, aren’t about education; they are about child care. They are about shunting poor sprogs out of the home for as many hours as possible, to enable mum to further her career and break through Labour’s imagined ‘glass ceilings’ in the workplace. It is hard to believe that the quality of lessons in state schools will not suffer further as resources are switched from teaching to what amounts to a form of social engineering.
After all, the government’s Sure Start programme has already been hijacked by the child-care lobby. When it was conceived in 1998, Sure Start was dedicated to improving the conditions in which deprived children were raised. There was to be better support for inadequate mothers, better health education for families raising children in inner-city slum estates, and debt counselling for young mums who found it difficult to cope on limited means. Yet the civil servant who devised the programme, Norman Glass, now complains that the cash has been reallocated for middle-class child care: ‘Sure Start, originally a child-centred programme, became embroiled in child care and the need to roll out as many child-care places as possible to support maternal employment.’
One can be forgiven for wondering whether the zillions being lavished by the government on child care are funding a bourgeois guilt complex. Some of Labour’s grandes dames have themselves enjoyed the services of nannies; why, they ask themselves, should mothers of modest means not be offered the chance to escape their squealing children and cut out a career path? Yet there is a sharp difference between the child care enjoyed by the bourgeoisie and that which the government is seeking to provide through schools. Nannies operate in the unregulated environment of the private home. Labour’s breakfast clubs and after-school clubs, by contrast, will operate in an environment where rough play is increasingly outlawed, and books and games are subject to veto for reasons of political correctness. It is bad enough that children have to spend six hours a day in such an environment; but to force them into it for most of their waking hours begins to resemble a scheme for the nationalisation of children.
In spite of heavy expenditure on crèches, childminders and now school breakfast clubs, the government has pointedly refused to offer tax relief to parents who employ grandparents to look after children while they go to work: such arrangements only qualify for tax relief if the grandparents agree to attend child-minding courses. This says much about Labour’s attitude towards parenting: it doesn’t really trust families to bring up their children. Rather, it seeks wherever it can to bring children under the watchful eye of the state.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the government seeking to make life easier for working parents; indeed, the tax system should recognise child care as a business expense. But it is wrong that the government should be raiding its own education budget in order to further its ambition to get women into work. There are grave enough problems with state education as it is, without schools being expected to serve as gigantic crèches.