The government’s proposal that shop workers should help kickstart children’s early development is laughable
Parents, we’ve all been there: a high-street shoe shop in early September. Everyone with a school-aged child has simultaneously realised that if they don’t get around to buying shoes today, the kids are going to have to start the year wearing flip-flops, or wellies. The queue is out of the door, heaps of small black lace-ups litter the aisles. Babies are wailing. Somebody’s toddler has got a foot stuck in the measuring machine. It’s too hot in the store, and there’s a heady scent of sweat and wee. Your own children are desperate to leave because you rashly bribed them to come here with the promise of a trip to the Lego shop and a doughnut.
How, you may wonder, could this annual ritual get any more hellish? As ever, the government is one step ahead: it has come up with the brilliant wheeze of training staff in Clarks shoe shops to “engage children in conversation” with the aim of “improving language skills”. We are assured that this initiative will be up and running by the summer, in time for the pre-school rush. The children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi has explained that “by working with a growing number of businesses, charities and experts, we’re making it easier for parents to kickstart early development”.
Really, where do they come up with this stuff? One can only imagine that Zahawi has never been into Clarks during the pre-school rush. If he had, he would know that there is no less suitable educational environment, and the only thing this initiative will help parents to develop is a stress-related migraine. Anyone aware of the cost of Clarks shoes – a typical full-price pair will set you back at least £30 – would also be aware that the chain is not, perhaps, quite the environment in which to engage parents or children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Let’s give our esteemed leaders the benefit of the doubt, however, and assume that somewhere deep within this misguided plan there is a good intention. The government is, quite rightly, concerned about the rates of literacy in the UK, citing the figure that 7.1 million adults have very poor literacy skills, and that rates of early literacy are particularly low among disadvantaged families. There is also plenty of evidence to support the argument that this is not just an issue for schools. A child from a family in which parents are confident and communicative has a better chance of developing good speech and language skills.
But the idea that a shop assistant can provide any kind of meaningful support to parents during a harried interaction in which they are also trying to buy shoes is just laughable. What parents – especially disadvantaged parents – need is proper investment in early-years education. A 2010 evaluation of the Sure Start initiative found that children’s centres, which offered consistent, high-quality expert support, could have a positive influence on the home-learning environment and on parenting more generally. Buts many as 1,000 children’s centres have closed down since 2010, and many of those that are left offer only a fraction of the services they once did. These centres, which were much-loved and so critical to any prospect of social mobility, have been the first thing to go for many cash-strapped local authorities. As have libraries, another crucial source of free support with literacy and communication – almost 130 of them have closed in the last year alone.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this scheme, which creates the illusion of commitment to social mobility while costing the government nothing. The cherry on the cake is that the private sector stands to benefit in the form of excellent PR for Clarks and the other businesses involved. But as we parents stand in those stuffy, slow-moving queues next September, listening to sales staff deliver their educational message while we attempt to pacify our restless children with Haribo, perhaps we will be forgiven a hollow laugh.
• Alice O’Keeffe is a literary critic and journalist