Thursday, December 2, 2010

People like US

Wanna get your child on the development fast track?  Got $400 and time in the day to spare for a course of classes? Live in an affluent area in the US? Then do not fear, commercially run parenting centres like this Boston based chain may be opening in an area near you soon.  
Little Teadrinker and I sampled our first session last week - we chose the Movers and Groovers developmental class for 9-11 month olds. Having navigated our way through the centre’s enticing posh baby shop to the ‘studio’, we were greeted by a circle of 10 cheery moms and their babies.  Our Akela was an uber parenting expert and Masters qualified early years pedagogue - Brits: think Floella Benjamin meets Tanya Byron.  After an initial exchange of baby related woes and advice, events kicked off with songs and stories, the moms and the brightest babies fluently baby-signing along. Next up was a range of motor development activities involving high-tech props including a parachute. The moms enthused from the sidelines as the babies crawled clambered and toddled around happily in the centre of the circle. The vibe was relaxed, although the competitive under-tone irrepressible “Has Aiden crawled through the tunnel yet?”, “Did I hear Josie say quack already?”.  Akela rounded up with some Thanks Giving advice on safety and dealing with sensory overload, finally sharing some Christmas shopping tips on where to buy the best wooden toys.
The pushy posh parent phenomenon is by no means exclusive to the US, yet in the UK we have not seen the likes of private parenting centres.  Could the reason be that the state has captured the market?  After all, Sure Start Children’s Centres now exist across England offering families with young children universal free access to everything from baby massage to dad’s stay and play and breastfeeding consultations - where they are run well, middle class parents come flocking.  The US equivalent, which started in 1965 and was an antecedent to Sure Start, is not open to better off families.  Typically for the US, Head Start is targeted exclusively at those on low incomes.  Obama is a firm believer and used the Economic Stimulus Package to boost its funding to the tune of $2billion.
Yet in the UK the principle of a universallity is proving hard to defend in the face of massive pressure on public finances - why shouldn’t “middle class freebies” be first in line for cuts?  Ministers are hinting that Children’s Centres could go the same way as Head Start, and as the UK's Child Benefit system, with only the most disadvantaged drawing the full benefit in the future. 
The argument for targeting Sure Start seems, initially at least, pretty compelling. The original architects of the Sure Start programme argued that universal, free access was necessary to avoid stigmatisation of services - something which had been a problem with Headstart. Yet England’s Sure Start experience has shown that even an open-to-all service does not necessarily entice those in the most dire situations, many of whom run a mile from anything that looks like authority or institution.  An early evaluation showed that Children’s Centres were failing in this respect, and a lot more money had to be pumped in to reach out to those families.
But before throwing the baby out with the bath water, politicians in the UK should take time to look once more at the US experience.  It reveals at least three troubling trade-offs...
1/  Targeting early years services could be culturally divisive. As our little venture last week illustrates, while it may be pleasant to be surrounded by “people like us”, the US’s targeted approach has led to a socially segregated, two-tier system.  A sorting effect happens of course to an extent anyway when children reach school age (watch Waiting for Superman for a powerful tale on the divided US school system), but by drawing the line so clearly about who accesses what so early in a child’s life differences between social classes are being reinforced at every level: social networks, peer effects, parents’ aspirations expectations, notions of tastefulness - remember the wooden toys...
2/ There’s a risk of disenfranchising the wrong groups.  A large proportion of families are likely to be left out of the equation all together - not poor enough to qualify for publicly subsidised services and not wealthy enough to fork out for the private alternative.  Many of the would-be excluded families make up the “squeezed middle” whose needs politicians both sides of the Atlantic are now claiming to acknowledge.  
3/ A minority services is often a weak service.  Headstart has survived an incredibly long time, but only just.  Most would acknowledge that it has remained a marginalised service with significant shortcomings: notably, the most comprehensive evaluation to date came out in January showing that children's attendance in Headstart had no impact on their academic, social-emotional or health status at the end of first grade. The lack of sustained benefits has been troubling its proponents for years, but attempts to fix it have been relatively limited.  Such drift would likely not have been tolerated had pointy elbowed middle class parents seen it as in their interests to agitate for a solution.  Crucially, the lack of broad public support is now putting the programme at risk, in spite of Obama’s wish to improve and build on the programme.  

Last week, a vote to renew the fiscal stimulus money for early years was kicked into the long-grass by Congress, meaning that it might be ditched entirely and hundreds of thousands of children could be kicked off the Headstart rolls. The issue hasn’t even made the national press.

1 comment:

  1. I live in an affluent area and only know of Headstart because my kids were in a development program until they were three where some kids graduated over to Headstart. (My kids were preemies and qualified for early intervention services.) I doubt I would know the name otherwise.

    Headstart centers can be culturally divisive but in this area, we are already so, so divided because of our household incomes - very rich and very poor, Headstart really doesn't make a difference. I know many families who simply prefer to pay for services out of their own pockets especially when Headstart reports such mediocre outcomes.

    While there are no private parenting centers here, there are such that exist informally, IMO. Mothers Clubs are extremely well organized and operate effectively as such. It's an interesting phenomena and if they haven't made it over to the UK, it is just a balance for the presence of NCT which doesn't have a US equivalent to my knowledge. :)