Comment: We are encouraging a starvation diet of parenting

The CentreForum report setting out five ways parenting can be improved is a start, but the recommended 45 minutes of attention for children a day is akin to starving them of nurture.

By Chris McGovern

A report from CentreForum has recommended that the government take remedial action to support parenting in the pre-school years. A five-point action plan is suggested that parallels the 'five-a day' national healthy eating campaign. Instead of five-a-day fruit and veg it is going to be 'five-a-day for child development': read, play, talk and encourage, plus nutritious nosh for the nippers. In addition, parenting classes are proposed alongside financial incentives to attend these classes for parents on lower incomes. Surprisingly, there is no mention of setting any boundaries for the way in which children behave. Is all of this an undesirable extension of the nanny state or a sensible initiative to ensure that the life chances of the least well off are not completely squandered?

One thing is clear, the report is right to focus on the under-fives. As a headteacher I used to tell new parents at my school that each year of schooling becomes less and less important. The early years are the most formative years. In school, Year One (5-6 year-olds) is a lot more important than Year 13 (17-18 year-olds). But try telling this to most parents and teachers and they will not give you the time of day. Status in the staff room goes to those who teach the exam courses to sixteen year-olds. Even more status is attached to teaching 'A' Level to 18 year-olds. By that time, of course, it is all too late. The foundation stones of learning, even the capacity to learn, have been set at infancy and in the womb. Although the first years of schooling may be more important than the final years, most important of all are the pre-school years. This is well understood by psychologists. Sadly, the message has not penetrated far within society as a whole. Fortunately, the current government is showing an interest and the CentreForum report is intended for policy makers.

Having focused on the right area to address, one has to ask if the report's strategy for reform will work. Certainly, as the report points out, there are examples overseas of governments that may have had some success through the promotion of parenting skills. But should our government intervene to promote parenting skills as CentreForum propose and will they work here? Christopher Wren said that if, in St. Paul's Cathedral, we seek his monument we should look around us. Similarly, if we seek a monument to government intervention in society over many decades we, too, should look around us. Problems of obesity and anorexia are common enough sights and cause us to question the success of 'healthy eating' campaigns. Drunkenness and drug taking feature rather more prominently than the restraint promoted by government. Lamentable levels of literacy and numeracy remain distinguishing features of many potential employees. Environmental vandalism is widespread, for all of the green initiatives. And so on, and so on. Not forgetting the once trumpeted 'care in the community' boast of many a government official.

The report offers seductively simple solutions to complex problems. Since 1945 our country has become welfare dependent. We rely on the state to see us through from the cradle to the grave in a way that surely goes well beyond what was envisaged by Beveridge. I have been in classrooms where children aged five cannot even speak. Frank Field MP has pointed out that some children arrive at school without knowing their own name. To rely on the State to make good such deficiencies is delusional. These are parental responsibilities. To remove this responsibility from parents is to impoverish children indeed. There is a danger that the CentreForum proposals will further increase dependence on the State for parenting. More dangerous is the fact that what is being proposed is little more than a starvation diet of parenting. Is it enough to propose, as the report does, that parents should talk to their children for 20 minutes a day with the TV switched off? What about the other 23 hours and 40 minutes? True, 15 minutes are to be taken up by reading to the child and 10 minutes with playing on the floor. But this still leaves 23 hours and 15 minutes? Children who are raised on this particular diet of parenting will be 'starved' of nurture just as surely as those in the Horn of Africa are being starved of food.

I had to tell some of the well-to-do parents of the young children at my school that were providing everything for their offspring, except the one commodity that really mattered. That commodity is 'time'. Children need their parents' time more than they anything else. The CentreForum report rations this time to 45 minutes and if this comes to be seen as a maximum, heaven help our children. Nevertheless, we should not dismiss this report. It identifies the root cause of so many of our problems in terms of children's under-achievement. Its diagnosis is correct. Whether its proposals will work remains to be seen. Past experience of such initiatives suggests that those who benefit most are not those who are in greatest need but those who have the greatest capacity to take advantage of what is on offer. And, ultimately, good parenting does not depend on more 'nannying' by the state but on the culture of the society in which they live and the motivation of the parents. How else would the human race have survived and progressed over the past hundreds of thousands of years? We should not observe the desperate situation in famine-struck regions of Africa without noticing the wonderful parenting that exists alongside it. Perhaps we should be looking there for some of the solutions to our problems of parenting here.

Chris McGovern is the chairman of the Campaign for Real Education and a former headmaster.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.