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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