Monograph Review: Pre-school childcare in England, 1939-2010

On Wednesday, Dpre-school-childcare-in-england-1939-2010avid Cameron pledged the further expansion of free childcare hours for three- and four-year olds via the Queen’s Speech. This indicates the increased recognition of the need for childcare in twenty-first century Britain, but his pledge can be seen as insufficient to meet either the needs of parents or the concerns of childcare providers. Angela Davis’s excellent new monograph indicates how statutory childcare provision in Britain has been continually hobbled by the idea that under-fives should be at home with their mothers, despite growing demand. Her work is especially interesting because her use of an extensive set of new oral history sources – focused on case studies of Coventry, Oxfordshire and Camden – allows her to challenge earlier assertions that developmental psychology and psychoanalysis had little impact on childcare practice. She suggests, for example, that the relative popularity of playgroups and childminders as opposed to pre-schools in the 1960s and 1970s was due to the fact that these providers fit better with psychoanalytic attachment theory and with established ideas about the role of the mother.

Five and Under (1941), one of a set of films I introduced and ran a Q&A session for at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge in March 2014, sums up the contribution of WWII to later childcare policy for me, despite being filmed long before the war was over. To a twenty-first century viewer, this documentary on wartime childcare can feel both strikingly ‘modern’ and firmly ‘old-fashioned’ at the same time. I was struck by the lack of judgement in the voice-over regarding the mothers using the childcare facilities, and the absence of any discussion, psychological or otherwise, about the impact this might have on their children. Such commentary has obviously become so familiar to us from debates about stay-at-home or working mothers that we’ve learnt to expect it. Nevertheless, the documentary prefigures the post-war nursery closures when it emphasises that the flood of women into the workplace should be seen as a temporary wartime expedient. Davis’s chapter on the Second World War explores these themes in greater detail. It suggests that the war was a turning-point for young children, echoing Michal Shapira’s claims in her recent The War Inside: Psychoanalysis, Total War and the Making of the Democratic Self (2013). This emphasises that the histories of babyhood/early childhood and school-age childhood may have diverged at this point, if they had not done so already; Mathew Thomson’s Lost Freedom: The Landscape of the Child and the British Post-War Settlement (2013) suggests that the 1950s were a more important turning-point for older children, and my own research inclines me to agree with him. The expansion of nursery provision during the war and the experience of evacuation, coupled with the psychoanalytic work of John Bowlby and Anna Freud, tended to confirm rather than question the importance of the mother-child relationship.

As my own research focuses on conceptions of childhood in primary and secondary schools in Britain (i.e. I look at children who are aged seven or older) I was especially interested to read the chapter on nursery schools, as I know much less about this age-group. My own work has indicated that the dominance of developmental psychology and its enormous influence upon child-centred educational practice shaped the educational experiences of older children and adolescents in the post-war period. However, other scholars’ research on earlier childhood has often suggested to me that it was psychoanalysis, rather than psychology, that was most significant in the shaping of policy and practice around the parenting of younger children. I wondered if this held true for nursery education as well, despite its engagement with child-centred pedagogy. Davis suggests that the ideas of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, and the Plowden Report on English primary schools (1967), which was significantly influenced by his work, were the greatest influence for nursery education as well as the education of older children in this period. However, she does emphasise that psychoanalytical attachment theory complicated this picture. The Piagetian model of discovery learning within an educational setting clashes with the belief that young children needed to be at home with their mothers to form secure attachments. The tension between arguments about the benefits of early years education and the pre-eminent position of the family setting for very young children continues today in discussions about childcare.

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What’s up next on the blog? May-June

DSC01825I usually try and create some kind of schedule for my blogging adventures, but I haven’t got a plan for the whole month ahead yet. I can tell you that I will be putting up new posts on Mondays and Fridays, and that Monday posts will be my ‘Monday Musings’ (brief first thoughts, arguments, rants and raves) while Friday posts will be more substantial book reviews or posts on historical research. Coming up for the next fortnight is as follows (some of these posts will be given better titles nearer the time!):

Friday 29th May: Monograph Review: Angela Davis, Pre-School Childcare in England, 1939-2010: theory, practice and experience

Monday 1st June: Monday Musings: The difficulty of writing teenagers

Friday 5th June: Laura Rereading: LM Montgomery, Emily’s Quest

Monday 8th June: Monday Musings: The PhD and academic self-confidence

Friday 12th June: Fiction Review:  Sara Novic, Girl at War

‘He was the friend of my life’

9780330529891Catherine has come from rural Ireland to study in Dublin in 1997. She’s modern enough to be ironic about her countrified upbringing, but, under the surface of her self-awareness, she’s as naive as any protagonist of a traditional coming-of-age story. Indeed, she reminded me a lot of another fictional Dublin undergraduate, albeit one who attended the university more than a decade earlier; Maria in Emma Donaghue’s brilliant Stir-FryBecoming friends with the more worldly-wise, complex James, is, for Catherine, the discovery of the ‘friend of my life’ that James Salter describes in the epigraph to this novel. ‘He was the friend of my life. You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.’ Catherine congratulates herself on being friends with someone who is so quirky, so cosmopolitan, so little like her; especially when she finds out that James is gay. Being friends with James isn’t special merely because of their shared jokes and taglines, but because it makes Catherine see herself as a different kind of person. The lengthy letters that James writes to her over a summer apart are only skimmed; what’s important to Catherine, at least at the beginning, is the fact of her friendship with James rather than the way it actually plays out in practice. In this way, the sense that James is the ‘friend of [her] life’ emphasises that their friendship was so important both because they genuinely clicked with each other, and because their friendship was life-defining. Catherine cannot have another friend like James, because her life is no longer as malleable as it was when she met him. This is why the friends of our earlier years will always matter so much.

It felt right to be finishing this wonderful novel as the Yes vote for marriage equality swept the board in every constituency in Ireland except one, with a more than 70% majority in favour in some of Dublin. James’s experiences as a gay man in a period where homosexuality is no longer illegal, but is far from being accepted, reminded me of Donal Carroll’s words about community in this post on the same-sex marriage referendum. Being permitted is not to be welcomed, and James is acutely aware of this: ‘every day there was still the fear; not being able to hold his boyfriend’s hand in the street… And even though they were not holding hands, seeing the way people looked at them, knowing that people saw them, and knew, and hated them’. Catherine’s studied stance of equality, however, is perhaps more telling than any of the more obvious homophobia that James encounters. She is positively thrilled, at first, that he is gay, both because this distinguishes him as somebody so different from anyone she has known before, and because this supposedly makes him a man she can relate to, unlike the faceless, frightening men she is meant to be falling in love with: ‘There was this feeling – and she was far from proud of it – of having been given something… She had never before known somebody who was gay. Nobody real… It had almost been a fantasy – a fantasy upon a fantasy – men who were not just loving, but so loving that they were able to love other men.’ Catherine’s view of what it means to be gay is framed not just by her lack of understanding of sexuality but by her definition of masculinity as something hard, strong, and loveless. It would be easy to criticise her or even dislike her for her ignorance, but, to be honest, her words took me back to my own early teens at an all-girls school, where men were another species and gay men were even harder to fathom.

I loved Belinda McKeon’s debut, Solacebecause of the gentle power of the writing; the way she took initially unpromising subject-matter and made something deeply affecting out of it. But I think that I liked Tender even more. In some ways, it feels broader in scope than the earlier novel. The timeless quality of Solace, which I commented upon in my initial review, has given way to a deeper rooting in a specific time and place, with landmarks such as the Good Friday Agreement prominent in the text, and I think McKeon’s writing is stronger for it. On the other hand, Tender’s actual focus is even narrower than that of Solace; we have one point-of-view character, Catherine, and one important relationship, Catherine and James. How much she makes the reader care about these two characters with so little that is, on the surface, eventful or surprising, is a triumph in itself. Structurally, as well, the writing gradually unravels as the story plays out, with the careful, measured narrative in the early chapters giving way to white space, single-sentence paragraphs and stream-of-consciousness prose, but this does not feel gimmicky, as it so easily could. The weightiness of Catherine and James’s story is not because it is an especially unusual one, but because what happens is weighty for them. This is a very hard thing for a novelist to pull off.

‘He was the friend of my life. You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.’ Catherine’s friendship with James moves beyond the initial thrill of having someone with whom she can appear modern, enlightened, experienced, and she is not the only one who sees the possibility of being someone else reflected in her partner’s face. The story of their friendship is not the story of a sudden, inevitable alliance, the way that both of them like to tell it: ‘Already they had their own way of talking, their private phrases, their language’. Nevertheless, the complexities brewing beneath the surface don’t mean that the things they do together are meaningless. If anything, Tender seemed to me to suggest the importance of friendship and of friends like these, even if these relationships can never be perfect in an imperfect world.

N.B. I received a copy of Tender directly from the author, but (as with other free products I will be reviewing on this blog) I have written this review because I genuinely loved the novel and want others to read it. Tender will be released on 4th June in the UK.