A Response to Steve Biddulph

This wasn’t the article I had planned to write for this month. I heard about Steve Biddulph’s book, Raising Babies*, which will be published by the time this particular article goes to press. He is a person of high reputation within the child care sector, but I must confess that I personally have never read one of his books. Not because I refuse to, but because there are so many publications within this growing and vital area, that it would be impossible to read them all.

Are Nurseries Damaging?

It is the publicity this particular book has generated even before it is in the shops and hearing him speak in a televised interview that has prompted me to respond to the media hype. It states in the press that he is claiming recent research evidences a link between children being placed in a nursery during their first three years of life and a growing tendency towards aggression and violence. 

He uses emotive words, such as ‘slamming’ children into full time nursery care from age six months. He appears to state that it would be much better if a parent were the main carer. His view of nurseries as providers of quality care have changed and he no longer feels they are appropriate places to look after the very young child.

I cannot argue with his reported sentiments, and I also understand the importance of selling books and publicising them in advance by raising awareness of possible contentious aspects, so prompting more people to buy them. I would, however, beg to question, would so much controversy have been created if the author had been a woman?

The Need for Good Parenting

Steve Biddulph is saying nothing more than John Bowlby* said all those years ago. The best carer for a small child is a consistent adult, preferably a parent. The next best thing would be a competent, qualified nanny. Where these two people are unavailable, for whatever reason, and I will address that later, the best alternative is a professionally run nursery, where adult to child ratios should allow for the development of a close and secure relationship between the nursery worker and the baby. I don’t actually believe he is saying anything we don’t really already know.

So, if that is the case, what should we be doing? Let’s look at the argument for a parent remaining in the home for the first three years of a child’s life. What might prevent this from happening?

Financial Constraints

  • Sometimes the dual income is necessary just to keep household bills and other expenses at bay.
  • The money paid out to support new parents with their baby is not exactly reassuring. A Sure Start Maternity Grant is about £500. Child Tax Credit works out to about £2000 per year, and Statutory Maternity Pay covers the first 26 weeks at a percentage of the mother’s salary.
  • If the mother or father is a single or unsupported parent, then the pressure to return to paid employment is quite strong from both government and community.
  • Single parents who choose to remain at home to raise their children are often castigated by the media and society as free-loaders, claiming benefits whilst the rest of us have to work.

 Personal Preference

  •  Some people see parenting as a huge responsibility. They would rather pay someone qualified to do the caring so that it is done properly, because they feel unable to meet the challenge.
  • Staying out of the workforce for up to a year can mean the difference between a potentially promising career and mundane employment. A number of parents feel that they cannot afford to risk losing an opportunity to gain promotion, and so return to work as soon as they can.
  • Some people know that they will be much better parents once their baby has reached the stage where they are more independent. Babies can be scary creatures, crying, flopping about and snorting. They don’t come with a manual, so it takes time to understand how they work.
  • Some people make decisions based on a number of other considerations, but they do so in the best interest of the child.

Steve Biddulph is also quoted as saying that he basically has lost faith in the nursery as a caring and nurturing environment. This is one of the most damning statements he could have made. What has gone wrong then with nurseries?

Commitment and Motivation

Speaking from the perspective of someone who has been involved in the training of child care professionals for the last twenty years, I have seen a change in the kind of people coming into this type of work.

Up to the 1980s, most people coming into child care knew this was the profession for them. They were mainly female and accepted there were very few financial rewards. They appeared to have a real vocation. Training them was a joy. They were no more able academically than current trainees, so from that aspect, very little has changed.

What I do think has altered is the motive for entering child care. I have seen a dramatic change in attitude. There is an arrogance and a resistance to gaining understanding and knowledge of how children develop and how best to support them to reach their potential. This is not helped by the number of training providers who feel that it is no longer important to have heard of Piaget, Bruner or any other theorist linked to the development of children.

I challenge this. It is absolutely vital to be aware of the framework behind current child care practice even if one disagrees with some of it. There appear to be more people with their own personal problems wishing to become child care professionals for misdirected reasons. In any caring profession or organisation, there have always been a percentage of needy individuals who feel that they can solve their own difficulties by taking on those of others. I think that the increase in these people, plus the lowering of standards by some training providers and nursery owners has allowed a serious lapse in quality provision of care.

The Need for High Standards

For that reason I embrace the new stringent inspection requirements from Ofsted. I hope that more nurseries are faced with closure if they do not comply and offer a more professional and open attitude towards the care of these very important babies and children. If Ofsted means what it says, then some nurseries’ days are numbered.

I have visited so many nurseries and have seen such a variety of standards; I have been shocked and horrified as well as delighted by what I have seen when visiting nurseries around the country. I cannot think of anything more soul-destroying than for myself as a trainer to visit a trainee on placement and see such appalling role models and child care practice that I have had to remove the trainee for their own sake.

The Future : Where Next?

The Government are planning to offer over 10,000 free child care places for children aged between three and four and a half years. This means that competition for the under-threes will become even keener in private nurseries. If we accept what Steve Biddulph claims about the implications for the future behaviour of these very young children, then all of us have a great deal of work to do to ensure that the day care offered is appropriate and of the highest quality.

Maybe this is where we should channel our energies. There will always be a need for child care facilities. Parents should have the right to make the decision about their own child’s care and not be unduly alarmed by what is written and debated in the current climate.

I do not believe that placing young children in a nursery environment is the only influence on their future behaviour. The nursery does not support the child 24 hours every day. Each experience has some effect, however limited on the child. Parents, extended family, the community, their culture, all have a part to play.

A High Priority

I will accept that some nurseries have no right to claim to be a professional, caring setting. I also believe that some parents cannot or will not look after their child in a positive and life-enhancing way. For the children of these parents, nursery must seem to be a wonderful option. If we valued our children as much as they deserved, then the status of child care would be high, the money to support parent choices with regards to child care would be readily available, and we would not have to debate this recurring message.

*Steve Biddulph Raising Babies: Should under Threes go to Nursery? Harper Thorsons

* John Bowlby Child Care and the Growth of Love Pelican 1953

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