From elf and safety to blithering Balls
So now he tells us. Now he tries to repent. Well, thanks for nothing, chum. After 10 years of suffocating legislation, the Labour Secretary for Children and Schools, Mr Edward Balls, appears to have woken up to what his government has done.
After 10 years of elf and safety lunacy, Balls has plaintively called for children to be allowed to take a few risks: play conkers, have a snowball fight, climb a tree, get a few scabs back on their knees. Bring back the joys of childhood, says the blithering Balls, as if Labour had nothing to do with the creation of our grossly over-regulated society and compensation culture.
“Children should not be wrapped in cotton wool,” said Balls yesterday, as if he hadn’t a clue about the innumerable prohibitions his Government has placed on nursery schools alone. Cotton wool? My dear Balls, if a nursery teacher tried to wrap a child in cotton wool, she would almost certainly be disciplined for engaging in inappropriate physical contact.
I’m quite serious. Nursery school teachers are not allowed to apply plasters, in case the child is allergic to plasters. Calpol is verboten. As for suncream! You need written permission to smear suncream, because any adult seen doing so is assumed to have some pervy purpose. It is technically forbidden to ask a child to stand on a chair (he or she might fall off), and as for disciplining children – you have no idea of the Pol Pot terror that can be visited on an adult caught in the act of trying to exercise authority.
Take the case of poor Olive Rack, 56, who has 20 years experience as a nursery teacher, and who last year saw one of her charges – a two-year-old – whacking a baby over the head with a large wooden brick. The toddler was about to have a second crack when Olive intervened and took her by the hand to the naughty chair.
Alas, her actions were spotted, through a window, by the emanations of the state. Two early learning advisers from Northampton County Council happened to be doing an inspection, and grimly noted the event.
Five weeks later, to Olive’s utter amazement, the police turned up on her doorstep and charged her with common assault. The case went to court, and only collapsed when the toddler’s mum said the whole thing was bonkers, and that Olive was a good nursery teacher.
My friends, no wonder it sometimes feels that the world is going mad. At last Ed Balls has cottoned on. “This is not the kind of society I want to live in,” he bleats. But where has he been for the last 10 years, when Labour has been piling this sort of thing on teachers and schools? Has he or any of his colleagues made a single speech in favour of risk? Of course not.
Actively or passively they are part of the great yammering constituency that demands ever more state regulation, protection and control.
If Balls is really serious about this, then let me issue him with a specific challenge. His department is now pushing through detailed plans to take over the running of nursery provision in this country. These plans mean, on the face of it, that more money is going into childcare – which we all applaud – but they also mean that thousands of wonderful nurseries up and down the country, many of them run by volunteers, will face new rules on the additional fees they have traditionally charged.
These badly thought out restrictions will actually drive many good businesses under and reduce the quantity of childcare provision; and yet that is by no means the most demented aspect of the plans. This very Balls, who claims he wants to deregulate childhood, is now insisting that anyone running a pre-school for children aged 3-5 must have a qualification called Early Years Professional Status, which takes between six and nine months to acquire, and involves showing that you can do such blindingly obvious things as communicate with children.
But the real kicker is that you can’t get this Early Years qualification unless you have – wait for it – a degree! What an amazing insult to the many people who work in nurseries, volunteers or professionals, who have never in their lives thought it necessary to go to university to be qualified to look after pre-school children. As soon as you want to look after 13 children or more – “degree please!” snaps the state.
Balls doesn’t care what degree you have. It could be in anything from astrophysics to sports science, but you must have a degree. Why? Is it a ruse to help the Government achieve its target of 50 per cent in higher education?
I am all in favour of more people going to university, and I am all in favour of people getting degrees if they want them. But what I resent is this insane coercion, this attempt to micromanage who runs our nursery schools, how they run them, and exactly what qualifications they have.
Now is the time for Balls to stand up for what he says he believes in. If he really agrees that an element of childhood risk is the inevitable concomitant of freedom, then he should stop talking spheroids and take the piffling risk of allowing 3-5-year-olds to be educated by a degree-less nursery teacher.
There is a huge chasm in British politics, and it is not about the role of the state per se. We all believe that public services should be properly funded, we all want a fairer and happier society, and accept that the state has a huge role in this. But what Labour fails to recognise is that their endless lust to meddle and regulate is not only adding unnecessary burdens to teachers – but also to the taxpayer.
Who is paying for poor Olive Rack to be prosecuted? You and me, and taxpayers on very low incomes. Who is paying for the increased costs of nursery provision that will inevitably result from this batty insistence on special new qualifications? The very hard-pressed parents that Labour pretends to care about. So come on Balls: put your money – correction, our money – where your mouth is.
Drop these mad new restrictions on nursery schools, stop trying to use regulation to nationalise pre-school education, and let’s hear it loud and clear. Children should be allowed to climb trees again – and you don’t need a degree to teach a child to climb a tree.