Elizabeth Truss’s comments on nursery education are authoritarian claptrap

Anouchka Grose says it’s sad to think that childhood, where we might exercise some freedom from crushing social constraints, might be formalised. This is from the Guardian…

The childcare minister, Elizabeth Truss, is worried that the nation’s toddlers spend too much time in nurseries “running about with no sense of purpose”. She doesn’t say exactly what kind of purpose she’d expect a two-year-old to pursue, but commends structured play, politeness and obedience to a teacher. Nurseries, apparently, are the place where human beings must stop being uncontrolled bundles of drives and become biddable members of society. If they don’t arrive at infant school able to subordinate their wishes and feelings to a higher order, then something must be wrong (and why should we give tax breaks to the parents of wild beasts?).

Of course it’s true that human development generally involves a process of becoming more and more controlled. You gradually learn to tell yourself what to do, and to do as you’re told. Then, if you’re very, very good, you end up in a job where you can tell other people what to do (and if you’re totally perfect you can become a government minister and boss people around en masse).

However, if you aren’t processed correctly, you may live your whole life flailing around, lashing out at whoever’s available, and probably expecting the government to pay you while you’re about it (unless you are a rich and famous footballer, like Luis Suarez, who runs around very purposefully, but also bites his opponents occasionally, because he clearly hasn’t incorporated the rules of politesse at a deep enough level. Where did he go to nursery?).

While it obviously wouldn’t be wise to argue for a state where children are allowed to do whatever they like, it’s also sad to think that the period of life during which we might exercise at least a bit of freedom from crushing social constraints may become even shorter. Being silly and uninhibited, rather than being a fundamental part of growing up (and beyond) risks becoming a behavioural issue to be resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible. The suggestion is that we live in a society that’s so totally broken up by untrammelled impulses – of the sort that cause people to have messy love lives and set their children on fire – that we must urgently apply restraining measures to the little ones who can still be saved in time to grow up to be right-thinking automatons.

According to Truss, the French have a far better system, where pre-school children are given structured lessons, and are expected to sit quietly, take turns and address their leaders correctly. Curiously, one of the key features of the French system is that they employ graduates, rather than well-meaning women who don’t mind working for peanuts. This is great for the toddlers because they are given the chance to be subdued by people who are themselves contained enough to have sat still through whole lectures on Derrida and Levi-Strauss.

What’s missing from Truss’s recommendations, and from the entire Tory mindset as far as I can tell, is any mention of kindness or enjoyment. Not to mention interesting-ness. What if nurseries were run by people who really knew how to engage children? People who made the children laugh? Who the children really liked? I don’t think it’s a weird thing to expect. My daughter went to a nursery like that (state-run, in the middle of a south London housing estate) and she’s still notably un-wayward 10 years on.

Like almost every utterance issuing from our dear leaders (whom I would not wish to address correctly if they walked into the room) Truss’s ideas about nurseries parade as common sense, but are in fact yet more patronising, authoritarian claptrap whose key result would be to increase our overall misery.

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