This week’s battle is about play versus formal learning, not about where that should takes place. For both experts and government alike, the assumption is that very young children will be put in institutions- nurseries or reception classes. They differ on what the focus should be when there. Should it be on play or formal learning? The experts want more play, which they insist matters to children’s development. Government does not rule out play, but say ministers, children should, when ready, be prepared for school.
For both however, the assumption is that someone, whether state or expert, should determine the rule for bringing up small children, rather that parents decide.
Yet free societies recognise that families matter for the care and nurture of their children. Families can judge, over time, which societal institutions will help their child and when- whether a playgroup, nursery school or reception class- and judge what each offers, whether formal learning or play. If the child is treated as an individual, formal learning will begin when the child is ready, whatever age that may be.
Every family differs. Parents bringing up children on their own may need special support. Others with two earners might wish for lower tax burdens, so one parent can stay at home rather than go out to work to pay the mortgage. For others one income is the price to pay for looking after children in their first years. What matters for the family is freedom.
The key to family freedom is a smaller, not bigger state, with government leaving families with more of their earnings to be free to decide what is best. This means that public spending should not favour one set of arrangements over the other. But the general rule for government and experts alike should be, let families decide, and leave them with the means to do so.