AS a child, I just wanted to be left alone – a lot of children are like that and I wonder whether the tendency of modern youngsters to bury themselves in cyberland isn’t partly based on this need for privacy.
My favourite activities were daydreaming and hiding and I resented the efforts of teachers and elders to steer me towards a more productive lifestyle – mind you, during the 1950s and 60s, this wasn’t much of a problem because adults tended to ignore children; they did not (well, not the ones I knew) want you to learn the violin, to play for your county or set about qualifying for Oxford. In fact, my mother’s most frequently-repeated injunction, particularly when I was being maungy, was ‘Why don’t you go and play out?’.
It now turns out that I was brought up in a particularly lucky time, between the end of child labour and, although in a much milder form, its impending restoration.
The childcare minister, Elizabeth Truss, wants to lengthen the school day at both ends, so it lasts from 7.30am to 6pm and, as if this didn’t sound North Korean enough, she also thinks children should go to school from the age of two as an answer to the childcare ‘crisis’.
This is a crisis that exists mainly because of the way real wages for all except the very rich have fallen over the past decade or so. The slack ways of my childhood, which left me with endless opportunities to mope about and develop myself away from interfering adults, have gone in the name of globalisation and international competitiveness.
Now, in order to survive, both parents have to work all available hours and the state has more-or-less given up any responsibility for the happiness of its citizens. The imperative is to make money; two-year-olds can no longer enjoy toddling about as part of a warm family. They have to stop being a hindrance to the money-train, which means sacrificing the delightful, self-educating early years so that parents can leave their children behind and earn the maximum amount of cash for employers and, ultimately, the City of London.
Remember that this is all in the name of flexibility – a fine-sounding concept which only applies to employees and is first cousin to the concept of zero-hours contracts.
The plan to extend the school day is justified on the grounds that it will make state-school pupils more like Etonians, who, being at boarding school, don’t have that wasteful dawdling time between leaving school and arriving home for tea. Now it will be all action; sport, homework, music, extra lessons. The poor things will then flop into bed having forgotten what their parents look like.
The justification is that this, apart from allowing underpaid parents to work for even longer, will raise standards – which in this case, because everything is now about money rather than happiness, means improving productivity (output per hour) to a level which doesn’t make us ashamed to be non-German, or even non-French.
But the fact is that levels of productivity in Britain are, to put it mildly, disappointing. Through the Thatcher, New Labour and Coalition years, we’ve broken the unions, dismantled employment laws, reorganised education on an almost weekly basis and, next up, condemned thousands of children to soul-destroying hours of toil. And all this hasn’t made us one jot more efficient.