Letter: Mothers at work: BBC hits back

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The Independent Online
Sir: Panorama's programme about working mothers did not "blame mothers" or suggest that they should not go out to work ("Who's right about child care?" and "Scaring mothers? It's Panorama's bit of fun", 4 February). What it did highlight was new research suggesting that children, particularly boys, with two full-time working parents, might suffer academically from lack of enough time with their parents. The lesson drawn was that both parents may have to balance time at work and home more carefully. Hardly a call for women to get back in the kitchen.

The North London University study which featured in the programme and which suggested that the children of part-time working mothers did better academically than the children of mothers who worked full time was criticised because it is as yet unpublished and had not been "peer reviewed". This is an ongoing study from which the authors have already published findings and this latest research on working hours will also be published shortly. Previous findings from the same study which found that children want their fathers to be "new men" have been widely and approvingly quoted in the quality press, including The Independent.

An American study which was also featured on Panorama and which found that young children's school performance was linked to mothers' working hours was dismissed in Polly Toynbee's article as too small to be worth considering. A sample size of 100 families is more than enough to produce significant findings as its publication in Child Development, one of the most prestigious academic journals, confirms. Polly Toynbee also asserts that such findings would contradict "so many studies". In fact these findings are backed up by conclusions from other recent surveys including one which studied 5,000 three- to five-year-olds sponsored by America's National Institute of Child Health. Perhaps such robust findings were a little difficult for reporters, anxious to discredit the programme, to take on board.

The programme is also accused of downplaying findings on stay-at-home mothers. As the programme was not viewed by either of The Independent's journalists, they could not have known that it went to some lengths to explain why children of stay-at-home mothers in the Barking and Dagenham sample did relatively poorly.

Polly Toynbee's message is that working mothers have "nothing to fear but fear itself". She heaps scorn on research that gave a more complex message and applauded uncritically any piece of evidence that seemed to support her simple argument. Panorama was not "scaremongering" but airing research that will help inform the decisions that working parents have to make about the balance between work and home.


Reporter, 'Panorama'


London W12