Working mothers 'harm children's A-level chances'

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The Independent Online

Mothers who return to full-time work before their children start school may be damaging their offspring's future exam results, according to research published yesterday.

Mothers who return to full-time work before their children start school may be damaging their offspring's future exam results, according to research published yesterday.

Young adults whose mothers worked full-time for most of their early years were less likely to pass A-level exams than children whose mothers stayed at home, claims a study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

A survey of more than 1,200 people born in the 1970s found that children of full-time working mothers were also more likely to be unemployed and to experience psychological problems in early adulthood.

However, the daughters of working women were much less likely to become teenage parents than the children of stay-at-home mothers.

The children of part-time working mothers did slightly less well at school than the offspring of mothers who did not work in their earliest years. But part-time working had much less effect on children's future A-level results than full-time work, the study found.

The study questioned government policies aimed at encouraging mothers back into full-time work. Ministers should instead promote part-time work because it had few adverse effects on children, said John Ermisch and Marco Francesconi of Essex University's Institute for Social and Economic Research.

The findings, drawn from analysis of 516 pairs of siblings taking part in the government-funded British Household Panel Survey, are significant because they measure differences in exam results between siblings whose mothers worked during the childhood of one but not the other. This means the only difference in the children's upbringing is the amount of time their mothers spent with them.

Professor Ermisch said: "The implication of our findings is that if parents have less time to spend with young children before they start school, there may be long-term consequences. This is evidence in support of employment policies such as parental leave and longer maternity leave.

"It might be better for policy makers to encourage part-time employment by one parent during a child's pre-school years. The large proportion of employed mothers with young children who are in part-time jobs is evidence that many mothers already prefer this option."

Children whose fathers were unemployed for most of their early years were less likely to pass A-levels, but the effects were less pronounced.

People whose mothers worked full-time for about 18 months - the average period - before they started school had a 64 per cent chance of passing an A-level. This dropped to 52 per cent for those whose mothers worked full-time for an extra year.

These children were also more likely to be out of work as adults, with the chances increasing to 9 per cent from the average of 7 per cent.

If mothers worked part-time for long periods, their children's chance of passing an A-level dropped by 6 percentage points, but they were also less likely to suffer mental problems later in life.

Mary MacLeod, chief executive of the National Family and Parenting Institute, said the survey showed parents should be allowed to return to work part-time. But she added: "We need to be cautious about making cast-iron judgements on working mothers from one study - statistics don't tell you everything. Many aspects of family relationships, and their environment, have a bearing on outcomes for children.

"For many mothers full-time work is a necessity, not a lifestyle choice. I hope this research won't be used as another stick to beat them."

The study conflicts with earlier research that found that working mothers did not damage their children's emotional or social development. A comprehensive survey of 40 years' research published in 1997 by London University researchers found no evidence that young children need to be cared for exclusively by their mothers.

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