At the annual conference of the UK’s National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) last week, Tristram Hunt, Labour’s shadow education secretary, criticised parents who do not spend enough time playing with their children. According to Hunt, his conversations with headteachers have taught him that children who are neglected by their parents arrive at school with underdeveloped speaking, listening and motor skills. This form of neglect, he said, has been on the rise over the past decade and is beginning to put considerable strain on teachers. Hunt blamed new technology – be it TV or iPads – as well as parents’ general ignorance of their ‘responsibility’, as he put it, to play and talk to their children.
This was, by all accounts, a bizarre and unfounded attack on parents across the UK. Indeed, all of the evidence runs counter to Hunt’s assertion. Parents today spend significantly more time with their children than they did in the past. This has ushered in what academics are calling an age of ‘intensive parenting’, in which parents are put under increasing social pressure to structure their lives around their children’s development and to occupy all of their children’s time with clubs, playgroups and other activities – which leaves less time for children to explore the world on their own.
The crux of Hunt’s criticism, however, is that funding cuts to Sure Start, New Labour’s flagship initiative for young children, are at the root of the problem. Sure Start centres, he said, are valuable places in which parenting skills are shared and learned within communities. But to anyone who has observed the British state’s increasing intrusion into family life over the past few decades, Hunt’s simplistic assessment rings hollow. Sure Start centres have, indeed, become ‘valuable places’ – but they are valuable to the state, not parents. Since its inception, the Sure Start initiative has been a means through which the government has pushed its own parenting agenda. Sure Start centres are places in which the state educates the poor in how to parent ‘correctly’ and keeps tabs on ‘problem’ families.
Hunt’s brazen anti-parent comments demonstrate just how ingrained these interventionist policies have become. He thought nothing of passing judgement on ‘irresponsible parenting’, while effectively calling for further government intervention into family life. It was, in short, an attack on the right of adults to bring up their children in the way they see fit. Sadly, this paternalism is precisely what we’ve come to expect from politicians.
Christopher Beckett is a writer and researcher working in the education sector.