5 April 2024

The Nationalisation of Childhood

By Jill Kirby

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Centre for Policy Studies and the 10th of CapX, we’ve been republishing CPS pamphlets from our archive. This week, it’s the introduction to Jill Kirby’s reflection on New Labour’s ‘Every Child Matters’ policy, ‘The Nationalisation of Childhood’. You can read the entire report here.

During the Blair years, New Labour has given the appearance of abandoning old-fashioned socialism. Embracing the language of the free market, acknowledging the importance of choice and talking of the need to ‘personalise’ public services, it has put on a good show of being a modern, post-Thatcher government of the centre ground. Yet under the skin, this Government’s socialist heart beats strong. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its programme for raising children, a programme which displays a remarkable confidence in the ability of the state to regulate the lives of its citizens and to control their destinies.

This Government has a five-point plan for the welfare of every child in England. The plan concerns the health, education and economic status of children as well as their behaviour, sexual health, relationships, personal skills and more. In order to forestall possible criticism, the Government asserts that this plan has been drawn up in response to the desires of the nation’s children, through a process of consultation with them. This is not merely a wish-list or statement of pious hopes, but a purposeful and universal agenda. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has broken it down into a sub-set of 25 detailed objectives, which will have the force of statute, be subject to OFSTED inspection and measured against Public Service Agreements and government targets.

To assist in the fulfilment of its plan, provisions in the 2004 Children Act enable the Government to set up a database which will allocate an identity number to every child in England and Wales and will carry personal data for cross-referencing children’s records between health, education and child protection services.

New duties are to be imposed on every local authority to ensure that childcare is universally available. The Government proposes that by 2010 every school will be able to offer ‘wrap-around’ childcare for every child up to the age of 14, from 8am to 6pm throughout the year, school holidays included. As the Prime Minister explained, as he commended the Childcare Bill to the House of Commons in November 2005, ‘this effectively means a new frontier for the Welfare State’.

This ‘new frontier’ bears a remarkable similarity to the Marxist concept in which the collectivisation of childcare was considered essential to achieve an equal society with full productivity. Marx recognised that ‘you cannot abolish the family; you have to replace it’. As Leon Trotsky later explained, ‘the functions of the family’ were to be absorbed by the ‘institutions of the socialist society’.

The Marxist doctrine was brought up to date by Anthony Giddens, one of the architects of New Labour, in 1998. In The Third Way, Giddens explained how the ‘democratisation’ of the family demands that responsibility for childcare be shared not only between men and women but also between parents and non-parents. Giddens also proposed that in the democratic family, parents would have to ‘negotiate’ for authority over their children.

The Blair Government signalled its commitment to shared responsibility for childcare soon after the 1997 election, and the expansion and subsidy of non-family care has been a key component of the Chancellor’s welfare agenda. Only in 2002, however, did the Government make clear the full extent of its proposed intervention in announcing the development of:

…an overarching strategy for all children and joung people from conception to age 19.

Intended to ‘cover all aspects of children’s and young people’s lives’ this strategy would:

…articulate the outcomes Government wishes to see for children and young people.

As this language demonstrates, the strategy is intended to create a direct relationship between child and state, with objectives determined by Government, not by parents. The role of parents would, in effect, be subsidiary to the state.

By the time Labour was elected for a third term in 2005, this ‘overarching strategy’ was gaining real momentum. Its statutory provisions were largely enacted by the 2004 Children Act (to be supplemented by the forthcoming Childcare Bill). Details of the scope and implementation of the strategy have been laid out in an ambitious DfES agenda, under the incontrovertible title Every Child Matters. In accordance with the doctrine of ‘progressive universalism’, modelled by Gordon Brown and his Treasury advisers, the strategy requires that the Government shall intervene in the lives of every child, but with the intention of providing extra help to those children who need it most.

Opposition to the Government’s strategy for children has been tentative and fragmented. Some Conservatives have expressed unease at the direction in which the Government is travelling, and Shadow Children’s Minister Tim Loughton has made a thoughtful case against some of the most intrusive and prescriptive aspects of the legislation. Concerns have been raised by the Liberal Democrats about the child database and its potential to become a system of ID cards by stealth, and newspapers of both Left and Right have expressed scepticism about the merger of children’s services and the effectiveness of the Sure Start initiative. But these concerns have not been consolidated, and there has been no attempt to question the full scope of the Government’s programme and its impact on family life.

The Government justifies its programme of universal intervention on the grounds that it wants to see every child fulfill his or her potential. It sounds compassionate. But the Government’s agenda is both dangerous and misguided. Not only does it enable the state to become involved in the upbringing of every child, displacing the primacy of parents, but it also puts at risk the welfare of the most vulnerable. Because it refuses to identify the real-life causes of the poorest outcomes for children, such as young lone motherhood and family disruption, the Government is incapable of helping those children. Through its determination not to ‘stigmatise’, the Government is turning its back on the most needy. At the same time, it is undermining the most reliable source of security and well-being for every child: the presence and commitment of both parents.

In the guise of a caring, child-centred administration, constantly proclaiming its desire to support parents and reduce inequality, this Government is effecting a radical change in the balance of authority between parents, children and the state. The nationalisation of childhood is no longer a Marxist dream; it is becoming a British reality.

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Jill Kirby is a policy analyst and former Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.