Laura Perrins is a former barrister and part-time Teaching Fellow in criminal law at University College London. You can follow her on Twitter @LPerrins.
Yesterday I attended an ‘All Party Parliamentary Group for conception to age two’ with Andrea Leadsom MP, Frank Field MP, and the Rt Hon Dame Tessa Jowell MP in attendance. They believe early childhood development (ECD - it now has its own acronym) must be placed at ‘the top of the global policy agenda, enabling children to achieve their full developmental potential and to contribute to equitable economic and social progress worldwide.’
It has one of those annoying petitions that go with it asking policy makers to “Put early childhood development at the heart of the new post-2015 development framework with targets that promise all children care, support and services which work together for the best start in life.” Now at first glance this might seem reasonable, but as a lawyer I can safely say I have not come across anything more vague in my life. You might also be surprised that as we are talking about children under three, it fails to mention mothers, fathers or parents at all.
All previous legal documents, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically state that both parents ‘have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child.’ The role of the State is first to not interfere with this in an adverse manner and secondly to facilitate this role, ‘States Parties shall render appropriate assistance to parents and legal guardians in the performance of their child-rearing responsibilities.’ The State should not put itself in the place of parents except in rare circumstances where parents themselves are a threat to children.
This proposed framework seeks to subtly change this. Northampton University, which supports the Framework, asks for ‘Everyone to take action on their responsibility to shape the future for children.’ Who is this everyone, you might ask? Well it certainly does not seem to be mothers and fathers.
This call to put Early Childhood Development central in the post-2015 Development Framework, is based on the idea that the first three years are critical to a child’s life. As some children, particularly in the developing world, can be disadvantaged some action is needed. But I think it is unacceptable to put children in developing countries in the same category as those of the UK. Their needs are very different.
But not according the Dame Tessa Jowell MP who at the at the House of Commons launch said there were ‘fires all over the UK’ that had to be put out. In addition to this bleak assessment she said of the nine babies born in nearby St Thomas and Guys hospital each day, some were ‘born into inequality.’ So it is never too early for State intervention it seems.
There are two key issues. First, the blatant inconsistency between the call that says the first 1001 days are critical to a child’s development and the constant push to get mothers of very young children out to work. There is not much mention of mothers in the literature I saw but there was the following on page 5 of ‘the first 1001 critical Days’: ‘Attachment is the bond between a baby and its caregiver/s. There is longstanding evidence that a baby’s social and emotional development is affected by the quality of their attachment to their parents.’
Note: mother not mentioned. There are caregivers and parents. They just cannot bear to say attachment to Mum is important. On the same page the only mention of mother is that ‘pregnancy, birth and the first 24 months can be tough for every mother and father’ a negative association, and , you could not make this up, ‘a foetus or baby exposed to toxic stress can have their responses to stress (cortisol) distorted in later life.’ So the other mention of mothers is that they may possibly damage their unborn child with stress while in the womb. It is just unbelievable. There is however, plenty of evidence to say that separating mothers from their young children and placing them in institutional childcare raises cortisol levels but you will not see that cited in this particular initiative.
The document does say (page 7): ‘Childminders, nurseries and childcare settings caring for under 2s must focus on the attachment needs of babies and infants, with OFSTED providing specific guidance on how this can be measured effectively.’
I can see it now. OFSTED invading the baby rooms at nurseries (they are proliferating) with their hug-o-meter ordering the staff to be more cuddly, or saying the cheek stroking is not soft enough.
We could, on the other hand, work to change the tax system to make it less likely infants in swaddling clothes are left in baby rooms for up to eleven hours a day, but then that would return infants to their mothers, and not the State. We cannot have that. There is nothing the State cannot do it seems – it can even order someone to be appropriately affectionate to a child they are paid to care for (but not too affectionate, remember).
Secondly, it is ironic that an initiative like this has been called for and sponsored by a Labour MP. The State, set up by the left, has been acting as financial provider for so long and ruthlessly undermining the traditional family which is the best protector of a child’s welfare. We are seeing that where children are raised in some very dysfunctional families this can have a negative impact on their development. Indeed the document recognises that for 26% of babies who reside in ‘complex family situations’ (namely a male who is not the natural father is present, along with other risk factors) this can ‘heighten risks for the baby’s wellbeing’. But instead of strengthening the traditional family, the call is for the State not only to provide but to become carer as well. The final frontier you might say.