Who's right about child care?

`Mothers are key figures for education talk, for talking about homework, for discussing what has gone on in the day' Professor Margaret O'Brien; `There isn't a scrap of evidence that putting children in day care while mothers go to work is bad for health or education' Dr Ian Roberts Institute of Child Health
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Are parents who leave their children in daycare centres damaging them for life or giving them an extra leg-up? Last night, this most basic concern for millions of families, became the subject of an intense academic argument.

BBC's Panorama has outraged women's groups and some working parents by highlighting research which claims that children of working mothers are more likely to fail at school. But in what seems a flat contradiction of that, another set of findings was released yesterday from the Institute of Child Health suggesting that, in fact, children who attend day-care centres have higher IQs and better social skills than those whose mothers do not work.

Both sides draw on academic research to support their claims. But who has the right approach?

The Panorama case is as follows: children are twice as likely to fail their GCSEs if they have full-time working mothers rather than part-time working mothers.

Research, carried out by the University of North London into 600 working- class families in Barking and Dagenham, east London, found that among the children with part-time mothers, only 11 per cent failed to achieve any GCSE passes. This doubled to 25 per cent when mothers worked full- time. When it came to high achievers - five passes at grades A-C - nearly half of the children of part-time workers accomplished this compared to a third of those who worked full-time.

The conclusion the authors reached was that children suffer academically when their mother is not there at the "critical" point of the day when they return home.

"Mothers are key figures for education talk, for talking about homework, for discussing what has gone on in the day," said Professor Margaret O'Brien, who carried out the research. "It appears that for children who are living in households where the mother is working part-time, she's around more at that time of day when the children want to talk about these issues."

However, Professor O'Brien found those whose mothers stayed at home did worst of all. In her study, 36 per cent of children of non-working mothers got no GCSEs at all - a statistic her team puts down to the educational and economic backgrounds of the family.

The Institute of Child Health's position strongly opposes the Panorama findings, saying those with pre-schooling have academic advantages. Its research encompasses eight important studies which stretch back as far as the 1960s.

All eight studies showed that IQ was increased in children who attended day-care centres and the early gains helped prevent later failure at school. Although the IQ effect became less pronounced as the children grew older, five out of the six trials showed that children continued to achieve better results in reading, language and mathematics tests.

Day care also appeared to have a civilising influence on the children, with teachers reporting they were much better motivated. By the age of 27, five times as many individuals who did not have pre-school day care had been arrested on more than five occasions than those who did.

"There isn't a scrap of evidence that putting children in day care while their mothers go to work is bad for their health or education." said Dr Ian Roberts, director of the Child Health Monitoring Unit at the Institute of Child Health.

"On the contrary, the evidence from well-conducted and controlled trials suggests that it's very good for children."

So who is in the right? Experts tended to favour the Institute of Child Health over Panorama, commenting on the breadth of its research and supporting the "positive" experience of day care.

Dr Roberts' findings were welcomed by the Equal Opportunities Commission and Colette Kelleher, director of the Day Care Trust which yesterday reported that only one child-care place exists for every nine children under the age of eight.

"We are aware that quality child care is what every child should have and it is very positive," said Ms Kelleher. "Day care needs to be put on the political agenda. It is an issue for any government and is as important as health and education."

But Patricia Morgan, research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs and author of Who Needs Parents? The Effects of Childcare and Early Education on Children in Britain and the USA, disputed Dr Roberts's findings. "These intensive learning programmes are used on highly disadvantaged children," she said.

"These projects are the sort of thing that responsible middle-class mothers are doing any way. The best programmes are based on good parenting in the real world. It is no miracle."

Polly Toynbee, page 15