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Homelife should be at the heart of childcare provision

Care homes for the elderly were a growth industry a decade or so ago.

They flourished like mushrooms. Gone was granny or grandpa rattling around in the old family home or spending their declining years in an annexe bolted on to their son's semi. They were tidily gathered up and herded into sunset homes.

Many of course still are - some from choice, others because of infirmity. But the tide has turned. The policy now is to care for the elderly in their own homes for as long as possible. It's a more human and humane approach. When it works well it is hard to beat: the individual stays in the comfort of their own home. There's no place like it, most of us agree.

So why isn't home the right place for our children? Why are we planning to herd them into day care in ever increasing numbers? I ask because the public discussion about childcare often seems to avoid these questions.

Herding? I'm not exaggerating. In the event of a Yes vote in the independence referendum the SNP plan to provide 30 hours of free care for children aged three and four and for vulnerable children aged two. By the end of the second parliament free care will be extended to all children over the age of one - not much more than babies.

Think about that. What sort of a nation will we be if it happened? What manner of childhood will we be offering our children? They will be growing up in group care for most of their waking hours.

Home will be like a hotel during the week; just for sleeping in. At the weekends it will be a frenzy of cleaning, shopping and organising for the next working week. This already is what life entails for too many children.

Many young parents still think of home life as being what they enjoyed as children - messing about in the garden, bringing their friends home or going next door to play. But it's not what they are offering their own kids.

For most babies born in the next few years, "home" may be day care followed by day nursery followed by school.

For it isn't just the SNP that is offering more and cheaper childcare, the other parties are at it too. Finance and affordability appear to be the only arguments mounted against free provision. And the policy is popular with parents.

Why wouldn't it be? Young families feel they need two incomes if they are to enjoy an improving standard of living. Also, young mothers want to return to work. Many have careers they enjoy and they find the domestic role too narrow. They want to work to "stay sane".

I fully understand that. Bringing up small children is hard and unrelenting work. There's no salary. It's a seven-day week with no time off. What's more, there's precious little recognition: in fact you are taken for granted. However, I look at parents of young children today and find I am conflicted about the direction their world is taking.

It delights me to see fathers out with prams and being hands on with their babies and toddlers. The myth that mothers are automatically the best parents is, I think, exploded. And that in turn emancipates women.

So we have addressed the right of mothers to continue their careers. We have tackled the rights of fathers to be on an equal footing as hands-on parents. But along the way, have we forgotten the rights of children?

If the very young could see the big picture, would they like their place in it? If they could vote, would it be for putting themselves into day care? If they had a voice would they want to spend their early years being shunted to a minder at dawn and collected at dusk? I doubt they would.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, the school standards body for England, believes children should start school-based nurseries at the age of two. He says that people with my viewpoint are expressing, "middle class prejudice for which some of the most disadvantaged pay the price".

He has a point.

My children went to school able to read a bit, hold a pencil and count. They answered to their names, understood "no" and "stop" and knew their way around a bathroom. They could take off their coat and put on their shoes. According to Sir Michael, up to eight out of every 10 disadvantaged children can't do these things when they arrive in primary one. Their development is already so far behind that they never catch up.

It's not lack of ability. It's lack of training. By starting their schooling at two, the playing field can be levelled. No fair-minded person could offer an objection. These children need rescuing.

But we are talking about a promised policy of free day care for all children from the age of one; just a few months older than Prince George who is clearly just a baby. We are told day care promotes cognitive and social development. But what about emotional development?

Many mothers have no choice. They are single parents and their wage is necessary. But many couples do have a choice. They may both want to work. They may have determined on a lifestyle that requires both incomes. But isn't lifestyle also about children and what is best for them? Couldn't either one spend more time on childcare, maybe working from home?

It is really a societal issue. The UK and Scotland seem to be following the Scandinavian model where childcare is cheap, readily available and widely used. In Denmark 92% of toddlers aged between one and two are in day care. The numbers rise to 97% of children aged three to five years old.

In Sweden day care is open from 6am until 6pm. Almost half of municipalities also offer overnight and weekend care. Children are dropped off for supper and a story before bed. In the morning they are delivered to day care while their parent sleeps off their night shift.

Since 2008 one-third of municipalities have offered parents an allowance if they choose not to work before their children are three years old. Very few have taken it up, perhaps because it amounts to only 8% of a monthly salary.

There are other differences with Scotland. In Sweden parents share 16-months paid leave when a child is born and children don't start school until they are six years old. Neither country has our long hours work tradition.

Parents who live within the Scandinavian model support it. Day care has a high child-to-adult ratio and staff are trained to degree level. So am I being sentimental and nostalgic and unrealistic about wanting children to start their lives at home? Am I raising uncomfortable doubts and unnecessary fears?

You tell me. All I would say is that I am grateful to have had a parent at home in my early years. I enjoyed playing with friends. I loved school. But I loved best the certainty that my home was within reach. Home was a place of warmth and security to which I could retreat at will.

That's a security I would like to offer every child with decent parents - at least until school age. We know our old people prefer it and though they might not be able to articulate it, I bet the young do too.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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