Strange society that prefers a creche to a proper loving home
Published 31/05/2013 | 17:00
Who's going to mind the children and how well are they going to do it? That's the question before us after 'Prime Time' revealed mistreatment of children at some of our creches.
At the outset let's say this: there is no magic bullet here. It is simply not possible to set up a foolproof system in which all children will always receive the best possible care. In any case, there isn't even agreement on what the best possible care is.
Different parents and different child development experts have different opinions on how best to care for children and always will.
But even if we drop our standards and just ask for 'good enough care', we still won't have a system which delivers that 100pc of the time no matter how much money we spend.
The Swedish childcare system is often held to us up as the answer to every parent's dream, especially by child-welfare groups who have never seen a State-led solution they didn't like. But the Swedish system is supremely expensive and practically forces parents to put their children in daycare, like it or not.
The reason for this is that taxes are pushed so high it becomes practically impossible for couples to live on one income.
This means they both have to go to work and therefore have to put their children in daycare. Apart from this, however, the Swedish system is not as high quality as people think.
There are so many children in the system it simply isn't possible to find highly trained staff in sufficient numbers to make it work as well as it should.
We should only copy the Swedish model if, as a country, we want to see the vast majority of our children placed in institutional daycare. If that's what the vast majority of us want, then so be it.
But if it's not, if we want a choice in the matter, that is, a choice between home and creche, then we shouldn't go anywhere near the Swedish model.
What do Irish parents want? A good indication comes from a CSO survey conducted in 2007, at the height of the boom.
To judge from it, most parents want their children looked after in their own homes either by themselves or by a relative. In 2007, almost two-thirds of children of pre-school age were looked after at home, as were 81pc of primary school children (meaning someone was waiting at home for those children when the school day ended).
Only 19pc of pre-school children were looked after in a creche or something similar. The rest were looked after at home by a relative, or a child-minder.
The survey also found that only a fifth of parents of pre-school children wanted a different form of care for their children and only half or so of that fifth (or 10pc of all parents of very small children) wanted to put their children in daycare as an alternative.
Around a third wanted to take their children out of a creche to have them looked after at home instead.
Therefore it is absolutely and abundantly clear that a very large majority of Irish people do not want to put their children in a daycare facility for hours every day. That is, they don't want what Sweden has to offer. What they want is choice.
But, say the 'Swedes' among us, good daycare gives your child a headstart in life. Your children will go into school better able to read and write than children who have not been in daycare. Therefore, parents should change their minds. High quality is the answer to all their dreams, and their children's needs.
In fact, the evidence that the academic headstart quality pre-school gives children is of lasting effect is ambivalent at best. The only group it seems to categorically benefit is children from multiple disadvantaged backgrounds.
But even if good pre-school did give the average child a lasting head-start in school (and to repeat, that is in dispute), why would you want to pitch your children into the academic rat-care at the age of two or three?
These are the utilitarian values of Gradgrind and they amount to a sort of moral blackmail. The message to parents is that they'd better put their children in pre-school because if they don't, they'll be failing them. Their children will start school behind their peers and they'll never catch up.
If we have created the sort of society that imagines we have to effectively start schooling children at age two or three or they'll lose out, then we need to drastically re-evaluate where we're going because there is something inhuman about it.
Indeed, it is a very strange sort of society that is very comfortable sending off all of its children to day-care for hours each day where they are looked after by strangers, even if those strangers are well-qualified.
Therefore, looking after children at home has to continue to be a viable option for parents and we have to do our best to make it so.
We have to make it so because it is what many parents want. They want it because they think it is best for their children despite the claims made about the educational benefits of daycare.
The danger in the current debate is that we are going to move bit by bit towards a very expensive daycare system that will rob us of the choice of looking after our children at home. We must not allow creches to crowd out home as a valid and realistic childcare option.