An open letter to Nick Clegg

You say you want to move away from New Labour’s hectoring of parents. So why all the child-targeted ‘early interventionism’?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Dear Nick Clegg,

I saw you give your speech on parenting in the Demos offices in London the other day, and you seem like quite a nice bloke. So I hope you don’t mind me raising a few niggling concerns about your strategy to rescue Britain from the dogs by helping us to be better parents.

First of all, social mobility. You say that the Lib-Con coalition government’s ‘primary social policy objective is to improve social mobility’ and ‘intergenerational’ social mobility in particular. While you recognise that ‘income is important’, you claim that ‘it doesn’t tell you everything’ about a child’s life chances and that we cannot underestimate the role that parents play.

Well, I agree with that to a certain extent – money isn’t everything and you don’t have to be rich to be a good parent. But when you go on to cite ‘some research’ apparently claiming that ‘just the simple fact of a mother or father being interested in their child’s education can, alone, increase that child’s chances of moving out of poverty by 25 per cent’, I do wonder what leafy planet you are living on.

Of course some parents choose to spend more time with their children, thereby sacrificing a high-earning career, and that may be no bad thing for their families. Of course many parents on low incomes are loving, motivated, responsible mums and dads who encourage their kids to succeed. But the fact remains that, if you want your children to get ahead in life, the most surefire way of doing that is to earn loads of money, send them to a really good school, and provide them with experiences and opportunities that you never had yourself.

Most parents can’t just choose to do this. Of those who can, some may decide that ‘getting ahead’ in life is not the only thing that counts, and they might prefer to enjoy their kids when they are young. But it’s just dishonest to claim that parenting skills have as much impact on life chances, or social mobility, as those old-fashioned ‘social and economic factors’. We can’t just ‘parent’ our way out of the recession, and it’s an insult to those families struggling with job losses and other financial difficulties to imply that social mobility is all in our minds.

Then there’s flexible working and shared parental leave. You received a lot of media coverage for this, and yes, you spoke about it very well. The current maternity leave provisions do ‘patronise women and marginalise men’, and there is indeed something ‘Edwardian’ about the wife-at-home ideas behind them. But in your ideal view of society, I wonder, is any parent going to be allowed to have a proper job?

In principle, I’m all in favour of parents being able to share leave and work flexibly to organise their childcare commitments; and as a flexibly working mother of two young girls, I agree it would be nice if it wasn’t always the woman who ended up taking the ‘mummy track’, trading stable and flexible hours for careers that offer more money, pressure and prestige. Your proposal, however, seems to be about building an equivalent ‘daddy track’, where fathers are encouraged to spend less time working and more time at home, socially mobilising their kids.

You propose extending flexible working initiatives, ‘to dispel the stigma many men, and some employers, still attach to it’. Well fine, but any ambitious person knows that you don’t get to the top by working a three-day week just for the hell of it. Without access to affordable childcare (which, incidentally, the coalition government seems to be closing down quicker than you can say ‘Mary Poppins’), ordinary families will have no choice but to go with the flexible working agenda.

Research last week revealed what many working mums have secretly known for a while: that maternity leave and flexible working effectively trashes your career. Push dads into a similar mode of working, and we are likely to end up with a two-tier system where the only people who can have careers, in any meaningful sense, are those without children. And Nick, the cause of women’s equality was never about dragging men down into the sandpit, too.

You stress that the new system of flexible working and shared parental leave ‘must take into account the needs of employers’. Indeed it must: having apparently got into a situation where companies find maternity leave such a burden that they merely avoid employing women at all, we know that we can’t expect equality legislation to play magic tricks in an unequal marketplace. But I have this worry that ‘the needs of employers’ is code for reconfiguring the job market so that everyone works part-time.

Jen Lexmond, author of the Demos report that provided the excuse for your parenting speech, hit the nail on the head when she proclaimed her own commitment to ‘shared parenting’ and argued that the current recession is a good time to try some of these ideas out. In other words, if the economy can’t provide enough jobs for everybody, maybe people can and should be cajoled into making do with half a job. Of course, this will mean they have less money – but if their children’s life chances are all about how they are parented, hey, who cares!

It all sounds fluent enough as a speech, but I’m guessing that the families of ‘alarm clock Britain’ don’t crave a day off from the alarm clock half as much as they would like a better job. To use parents and their childcare commitments as a pretext for pushing through such low economic expectations for all is a pretty mean trick.

I liked the bit where you criticised New Labour for its ‘preaching’ and ‘wagging finger’, and would like to have believed you when you told families that, beyond certain government interventions, ‘the decisions, the choices, the lifestyle… is up to you’. But if you don’t believe in telling people what to do, you shouldn’t be ‘nudging’ them either.

When you talk about ‘looking at what can be done to encourage men to take more [parental] leave’ and suggest ‘”use-it-or-lose-it” blocks of time, especially reserved for fathers’, alarm bells go off in my alarm-clock head. Like New Labour, you talk about ‘supporting’ and ‘empowering’ parents, but I wonder if you really mean manipulating them to make the ‘right’ choices.

And finally – Nick, what are you doing with Demos? The invitation to the launch of their new report, The Home Front, looked promising enough, as it claimed to criticise a contemporary ‘moral panic’ about parenting and recognised the significance of this panic: ‘The difference between today’s moral panic and those of the past is that disapproval of “poor” parenting is now explicit and encoded in policy.’ But the report goes on to endorse all of these assumptions about the problem of parents and the need for greater government intervention, by proposing the kind of illiberal measures that make New Labour look family-friendly.

For example, the report recommends that government should ‘apply the early intervention principle beyond the early years’. It proposes broadening the health visitor role to ‘make health visitors a universal frontline parenting support service’, able to do such tasks as provide ‘light-touch screening of parent and child for attachment and developmental problems’, and referring parents, ‘where appropriate’, to early years services like Sure Start, where they should be subject to a government-commissioned ‘diagnostic screening tool for children and their parents’, which ‘would cover post-natal depression, attachment and bonding in the early years, child emotional and behavioural development, and cognitive and linguistic development’. The government should develop a ‘parenting booster class’ for when children first start school, to deliver ‘evidence-based programmes’. The list goes on and on.

All this speaks to Demos’ political outlook, which is as negative about parents – and as gung-ho about state intervention – as it ever was in its days as a New Labour-oriented think-tank. It pretends that its policy recommendations are the outcome of research but really, Nick, even as a fledgling social scientist I can that tell this research is rubbish.

Jen Lexmond, the report’s author, talked in gushing terms about how they’d lived alongside families ‘for extended periods of time’, really getting to know their experiences: read the report, and it turns out that the much-vaunted ‘ethnographic’ element of this research involved three focus groups, ‘eight family case studies involving two-day visits to families and photo diaries’, and a participatory family workshop. The sexy ‘qualitative’ element was given some quantitative welly with a poll and some ‘longitudinal data’ – you’ve guessed it, more number-crunching from the Millennium Cohort Study.

This isn’t academic research; it’s reality TV. (Although I’m guessing that even the camera crews for Supernanny spend more than two days with the families they are filming.) And whatever ‘mixed methods research’ is supposed to be, it surely doesn’t simply involve throwing a little bit of everything at a project in the hope that lots of banal results will become a solid research finding.

Nick, if you want some parenting advice from me, here’s the biggest lesson I have learnt since becoming a mum: beware researchers carrying ‘evidence-based’ policy suggestions. The evidence tends to be rubbish, and the policy suggestions are the prejudices around which the ‘finding’ always seems to have been written. My plea is that you will leave families to deal with their alarm clocks and that you will focus on politics – which is what you were elected to do.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

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Topics Politics


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