Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, is one of those rare animals: an intelligent politician who oozes scruples and integrity. You don’t necessarily agree with everything he stands for but you know he believes in what he says and he’ll listen and make his mind up irrespective of party lines. It’s easy to respect that in the same way one should despair of mindless idealism and slavish devotion to one political party.
Field’s long supported efforts to improve the lot of the most deprived in the UK and has written numerous publications about welfare reform, poverty and social mobility. Tackling the latter was a major objective of the last government but, despite throwing billions at it, providing the children of poor families with aspiration and opportunities of which they’ll take advantage has been a failure. And it’s getting worse. Fewer clever children of poor parents in Britain do well when we’re compared with other countries in Europe.
This is one of the observations of a parliamentary select committee report published recently. Frank Field was on that committee and is of the view that the most important years of a person’s life are the first five as it’s then that the child’s foundations are set. How they’re cared for, how they’re talked to and the immediate environment they experience will set the standards for the rest of their life. As Frank Field says: “Anything we do after the age of five is just rescue work”. That’s really frightening when you see children being screamed and sworn at in the street by their mother. Or when you see them sitting in a pushchair with a bag of chocolates in front of them being encouraged, yes encouraged, to eat the sweets to keep them quiet. Well how else do you stop a child from whinging and crying?
And that’s the problem. Most parents don’t have clue how to bring a child up. So Frank Field’s view is that children should learn parenting skills at school: balancing a weekly budget in maths; learning about the development of the brains of babies in science lessons. “We need a campaign like the five-a-day one for healthy eating around good parenting”, he says. Oh dear, I really hope he doesn’t mean that.
And I actually think he doesn’t. He seems to be saying that it’s essential that we teach future generations of parents the importance of some fundamentals in life like honesty, reliability, self-control and intellectual development; things that most parents of well-off children believe in naturally because that’s what they were taught implicitly.
The problem with that dreadful five-a-day stuff is that it addresses the symptom and not the cause. More and more people eat appallingly and so our governments decide that the way to address the issue is to correct it by extolling us to eat some extra fruit and veg. It’s like encouraging the use of an antidote rather than teaching us how to avoid the poison in the first place. The morning after pill, as an example, also springs to mind.
Like how to avoid the poison, or getting pregnant initially, understanding what you’re eating is surely the best solution. And the surest way to understand what you’re eating is to cook the stuff in the first place. It means you go out and buy it and put it together in known quantities and proportions. You’ll soon realise if you’re using a pack of butter with each meal or half the contents of a bag of sugar in every pudding.
Fewer people cook in the UK, as a percentage of the population, than ever. Many think they cook but question them and you’ll find that it comprises such things as mixing an Angel Delight or boiling some potatoes to go with a tin of stew.
Mr Field’s a clever bloke. I hope he also differs from most other MPs by cooking for himself every now and then. If he does he’ll know that five-a-day is doomed to fail. So along with understanding how to talk to our children, read to them at bedtime, limit their use of TV and computers, involve them in a rewarding social environment and provide them with standards of decency and honesty, we really ought to be taught how to feed them – and ourselves.