Sunday, November 09, 2008

Children perform better if mother stays at home

There have been many studies (e.g here and here) showing that institutional childcare is harmful to all but the most deprived of preschool children so it is good to see more recognition of that

Babies should be looked after by their mothers in their first years of life, Tony Blair's favourite think tank signalled yesterday. It published research that admitted babies and toddlers sent for long hours in daycare learn less quickly, have worse health, and behave worse than other children. It also suggested that the children suffer because mothers who return home from work tired and unhappy are less able to give them the time and full attention they need.

The warnings over childcare published by the Institute for Public Policy Research suggest a dramatic rethink over working mothers and childcare at the heart of the Blairite establishment. Since 1997 Labour has poured billions into subsidising nurseries and childminders through the tax credit system, through direct daycare benefits, and through the troubled Sure Start project meant to help the neediest families. Persuading mothers to go back to work soon after their children are born has been a central plank of Mr Blair's 'project'.

Three years ago the Department of Trade and Industry - then headed by current Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt - published a paper describing those who do not return to jobs in the first two years after childbirth as a 'problem'. It said mothers who stayed at home were not giving the taxpayer a return on the cost of their education. Despite growing evidence from independent studies that full-time childcare can have harmful effects, new figures from the Education Department last week boasted proudly that a record number of more than 700,000 children now attend nurseries for more than four hours a day.

But two articles in the IPPR's journal said the children would be better off staying at home with their mothers. Psychologist and TV presenter Oliver James, who described himself as a 'reasonable left wing person', said he was sceptical about the drive for 'affordable childcare'.

He said: 'My proviso comes in when politicians, who have the evidence about how important early care is on children's development, decide that only people doing paid work are of any value and that there is a moral duty for us all to do a paid day's work. 'Trying to persuade parents of very young children, particularly single mothers, to leave them and go out to work, while not an unqualified no no, fails to recognise that somebody has got to be left holding the baby and that, on the whole, it is better if it is one of the child's biological parents up to the age of three.' Oliver James added: 'On the whole children who attend daycare under three are at greater risk of being aggressive. 'I am arguing for us to rediscover feminism. Let's actually have female emancipation and not the nonsense that we have got now. One part of that is definitely supporting women who do want to care for their children to be able to do so.'

A second article by US academic Janet Waldfogel told IPPR subscribers that in the first year after birth 'there are reasons to think that exclusive mother care would be best for a child.' She cited learning ability, health and social development as adversely affected for those who are in childcare before their first birthday. 'Across all three dimensions, with all things held equal, children tend to do worse if their mothers work in the first year of life,' she said. Children also did best if they lived in two-parent families, she added, in a view that conflicts with the Government's policy that claims all kinds of families are just as good as each other.

Both IPPR journal contributors said there should be 'costly' new public spending to pay salaries or give more time off work to new mothers. But critics of subsidised childcare said the best way to help mothers stay at home was to give tax breaks to help one-earner families. Jill Kirby of the centre-right think tank Centre for Policy Studies said: 'It is gradually dawning on the Government that they should do nothing more to penalise mothers who stay at home with their children. 'There is very strong evidence that childcare, and in particular the mass cheap childcare that Labour favours, is not in the best interests of young children. 'The way to help mothers is not to put even more burdens on taxpayers or employers, but to cut taxes for one earner, two parent families with young children. Tax breaks would ease the difficulties for families at the point of greatest pressure.'


Education is the key to social mobility but Britain has achieved NO improvement in social mobility for a long time

Despite it allegedly being a major goal of the ruling Labour party government

The class divide is as deep as ever in Britain, a Government report has admitted, with "social mobility no greater or less since 1970". Family background "still makes a marked difference" to what chances a person will have in their life, the study says. Working-class children continue to fare badly at school compared with their richer classmates and struggle to get better jobs than their parents had, it is claimed.

The report, by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, discloses that the UK's record on making education and employment more fair "does not compare well internationally" and that much more could be done. It goes on to claim that increased investment on education and care for toddlers is starting to have an effect, however, and there have been "positive changes" in narrowing the class divide this decade.

But critics said the modest improvements are a "damning indictment" of Labour's key pledge to reduce the gap between rich and poor, which has seen education funding almost doubling to 77billion pounds a year in addition to reforms of the welfare system. Chris Grayling, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: "Ministers are claiming this morning that things are getting better - that between 2001 and 2005 in this country social mobility began to improve. Barely. "Firstly, what a damning indictment of 11 years of Labour Government, of vast amounts of money spent on regeneration programmes, on complex new systems of support for people on low incomes, on the New Deal - that the best they can claim is a fractional improvement. If indeed that fractional improvement even exists outside the Downing Street spin machine."

He went on: "Only rarely do you find young people making the social leap that once took the best and the brightest of previous generations brought up in Britain's humblest backgrounds to positions of prominence."

The report, called Getting On, Getting Ahead, says there was a sharp increase in social mobility after the Second World War as children of working-class parents acquired better paid clerical and professional jobs. Social mobility in this report is gauged by comparing the quality of occupation one person has with that of their parents. The trend then went into reverse, however, with the proportion of men getting better jobs than their fathers remaining the same since the 1970s, although it has improved among women. "Broadly, social mobility is no greater or less since 1970," the report states. "Since the war, the UK's record on making sure people have a fair chance to get better jobs does not compare well internationally."

The report says the influence of family background on educational attainment has "remained constant", with poor children less likely to leave school with five good GCSEs or go on to study at university. It states: "One of the UK's major international weaknesses has been the large number of people emerging from school with few qualifications."

However, the report also finds that family background has had less of an impact on GCSE results for those born in 1990 - who took their exams in 2006 - than in 1970, suggesting the younger generation may be more able to move up the social ladder. This group has not yet entered the employment market so comprehensive data on their social mobility is not available. In addition, it says earnings mobility - the chance of getting a better job during a person's career - has "risen slightly since 2000".

Liam Byrne, the Cabinet Office minister, said: "What seems clear is that despite the huge social, economic and political changes between 1970 and 2000, social mobility didn't go up - it stayed the same. Now, things look like they're starting to improve. "The key for the future appears to be capturing a big share of high-value jobs that will come as the world economy changes over the next 20 years plus investing in the things, like Sure Start, school standards, post-16 education and more training at work to give more people a fairer chance to get on."


'Absolute safety' is impossible and should be scrapped, says head of Royal Society for the Prevention of ACCIDENTS

The chief executive of one of Britain's biggest health and safety watchdogs has pleaded for a return to 'basic common sense'. Tom Mullarkey, of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said people should be able to 'get on with' activities like walking or mowing their lawn themselves. His call for leniency to members of his watchdog follows a string of accusations that bureaucrats have attempted to eliminate all risk from all manner of pursuits to avoid costly lawsuits. The compensation culture has particularly affected children's activities, resulting in games of tag, football conkers and British bulldog being banned.

It has been revealed that Peter Miller, 88, who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War and was captured during the retreat to Dunkirk, has been banned from carrying the banner of remembrance tomorrow - despite his wishes - because he has become frail and there would be a 'problem with insurance'. The health and safety axe has even come down on collecting firewood. Retired builder Mike Kamp was told earlier this year that he could no longer gather supplies in local woods for the stove at his cottage near Betwys-y-Coed, North Wales, because of the 'increasing constraints' of modern legislation.

Speaking at the charity's annual general meeting, Mr Mullarkey said the quest for 'absolute safety' was impossible and should be abandoned - and that health and safety officials should stop intervening unnecessarily in public life. Instead, he said information should be made available so people can decide for themselves whether to take part in a particular activity, by using their own judgement.

A change in mindset was needed to avoid accusations of Britain being a 'nanny state', he said. 'The application of common sense and balance is much more reasonable than the seeking of mindless increments towards 'absolute safety', a destination which is neither feasible nor, in all probability, desirable, since it would come at such cost to our freedoms,' he said. 'Accident prevention involves so many technical, legal and ethical issues, ultimately defining life and death, that there is no simple shorthand for explaining how the whole thing works for the benefit of the 60 million people who rely on it. 'Whether walking in the hills or mowing the lawn, people need to be able to get on with it themselves, ideally armed with the tools of knowledge and experience.'

He went on: 'In the middle is the tricky bit - where to draw the line between intervention and laissez-faire. 'This is typically the area where the media and the public become most incensed with what might be described as 'misplaced intervention'. 'Here is the crux - how to apply the proper balance of factors in order to exercise good judgement. 'Too prescriptive, and accusations resound of the 'nanny state' - too casual and people would undoubtedly be forced to take unknowing risks.'

Mr Mullarkey said there are areas where strict health and safety rules are needed - for example, in the nuclear, chemical or aviation industries. But in other areas of life, people should be provided with sufficient information to determine their own health and safety. In addition, he said health and safety officials should ask themselves basic questions before deciding to stop or curtail an individual's activity.

'At RoSPA, we draw the line with two simple questions,' he said. 'Is the intervention proportionate to the risk? And what would be the effect on others? 'Someone who puts only themselves at risk should have the freedom to do so; but if an act can kill or injure others, it must be proscribed or regulated. 'A solo mountain climber fits into the first category; a speeding motorist the second.'


A motoring program is politically correct Britain's safety valve

Such a crude, foul, atrocious, indefensible joke. And what a joy to hear it. Jeremy Clarkson's quip on Top Gear that a lorry driver's job amounts to "change gear, change gear, check your mirrors, murder a prostitute..." made me guffaw with relief that the BBC has not, despite the torches and pitchfork lunacy of last week, appointed some blue-pencilled Humour Tsar to deny Britain its filthy smirks.

Despite it being pre-recorded, the BBC still let it run, knowing that the smarting, exiled Ross-Brand fanbase could jack it up into a test of Ofcom: do the rules that silenced the Left-leaning, youthful, eye-linered edge apply equally to the pressed-jeaned, middle-aged mainstream? And presumably the BBC foresaw a crack about murdered women might provoke cries of misogyny, but could guess most of us were laughing at Clarkson giving Top Gear's legion of trucker fans a blithe kick in the nads.

Perhaps jokes like this will turn out to be the BBC's salvation. Last week, while abroad and thus slightly detached from the media mentalism, I heard Charles Moore on the Today programme coolly suggest that very soon people would simply refuse to pay their licence fees. It was a Voldemort moment. Dark forces were mustering. What was to stop ordinary citizens who were finally expressing their long-bottled moral distaste joining the BBC's ideological and commercial enemies in civil disobedience? Why hadn't some internet campaign popped up already - - getting people to pledge non-payment? What could the BBC or the Government do if 100,000, 500,000, a million households refused to fork out œ139.50, a merciless flat tax and no small sum to a recession-hit family?

There is a distinct type of defiant, individualistic Briton who would leap to this cause. The fuel-protesters, Eurosceptics, Countryside Alliance loyalists, the nation's hardy last-ditch smokers, the insouciant, hearty, bar-propping trans-fat munchers, and those bored half-crazy by always having to be good. The only programme guaranteeing their loyalty to the BBC, the only place they are heard at throaty full volume, is Top Gear.

While Hammond or May burble on about the spec of some supercar, check out the faces in the studio audience. Beaming and blissed-out. Women as well as men. Regular men, not just ugly, anoracked, classic-car nerds. Top Gear is a guilty pleasure for those, like me, who hate driving, who earnestly cycle and recycle, who own a clunky, uncool Renault Modus because it could cross the Andes on a teacup of lighter fuel.

For most of Top Gear's six million viewers the show is not really about cars at all. (We make tea during the technical blah.) Top Gear is about laughing, hard and long at three boy-men performing dangerous (in a carefully calibrated way), stupid, childish stunts like turning an MG midget into a yacht. Those who witter on that Clarkson driving a Lagonda too fast over the Alps encourages speeding or joyriding, or claim this petrol-headed insanity defies serious attempts to halt global warming, haven't watched Top Gear this century. It is not about the coolness of driving, but the manifest uncoolness of men who enjoy it too much.

Indeed Top Gear has become a societal safety valve: they drive lorries through brick walls, send a Robin Reliant into space, sip gin and tonic at the wheel or just go full throttle on an empty road, because we shouldn't or can't. It celebrates recklessness, a nose-thumbing at public bossiness or health & safety dictats, the schoolboyish impulse to shove fingers in sockets. Every time it snows and my son's school keeps children indoors in case anyone slips, whenever the binmen shove a card through my door chiding me for leaving a tin can in with the bottles or a passport controller tells me to carry my kids' birth certificates to prove I'm not a child trafficker, I too come over all Top Gear.

When the Conservatives were casting around for direction after the disaster of Michael Howard, I wondered why they did not look towards Top Gear. It is, after all, a well-spring of a natural, unforced British conservatism, since even the most collective-minded Leftie among us turns into a solitary get-out-my-way lone wolf behind a wheel. At its remotest fringes, the Top Gear tendency is the pale, weedy equivalent of the membership of America's National Rifle Association. But for the most part, it is largely tolerant and broadminded, even about such matters as gay marriage or immigration, as long as it is still guaranteed the right to make unsound jokes about them. Indeed, if Top Gear was a politican it would be Ken Clarke: plump, bibulous, cigar-smoking, jocular, pragmatic, forever putting sense before ideology.

But when the Tories chose David Cameron, an inoffensive, solar-panelled goody-goody, the Top Gear tendency found itself still stranded in political long-term parking. It is unimaginable for Dave to burn up Gambon corner in a "reasonably priced car". (Except maybe a Prius, which Top Gear would probably say is neither reasonably priced nor much of a car.) Indeed no party has the kind of rumbustious everyman with the chutzpah to carry it off. Which is a shame since watching a star streak around the race track is more revealing than any interview, exposing degrees of nervousness, timidity, courage, competitiveness and how often a person curses under pressure. Perhaps a race-off between Gordon, Dave and Nick before the next election could replace the usual yawnsome debates.

Top Gear celebrates our national gift for everyday badinage and the magnificent British trait of doing anything for a laugh. Visiting the Somme, I was told of Tommies going over the top of trenches while trying to kick footballs into German lines. The enemy thought them insane. Most of them died. It was very Top Gear.

British politics is currently so bleak and serious that we crave humorous distraction more than ever. Indeed the Brand-Ross affair seemed a self-created sideshow to take our minds off the economy. Meanwhile car sales tumbled last month, making Top Gear not less relevant but more necessary than ever. If recession turns to Depression it will make the political climate cruel, blaming, even violent. Impotent and frustrated, we're going to need to blow that safety valve. And better the release of a crude quip than something uglier and far more brutal.


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