Nursery crimes? Not guilty

Working mothers should not feel ashamed - quality day care can benefit children, argues Fran Abrams
Click to follow
If some people are to be believed, some of Britain's best-educated, most highly motivated parents are irrevocably damaging their children by sending them to school before they are out of nappies. This week, Paddy Holmes, an independent school headteacher, warned that youngsters were being treated "like young animals, staying with their mothers only as long as they are biologically dependent". The emotional development of these children could be stunted by isolation from their mothers at so young an age, she argued.

Coming at a time when the number of under-fives in education and day care is rising, this might seem more than a little surprising. The proportion of two-year-olds in prep schools went up by 27 per cent last year and the Government has promised education for all four year-olds. Almost 50 per cent of women with children under five now have jobs compared with just 35 per cent in 1987.

It is not surprising, then, that Mrs Holmes' comments caused something of a furore, sparking deep anger among parents - no one wants to hear that they are not bringing up their children properly - and heated comment from traditionalists who would like to see more women in the home. But if her warning is well-founded, there are grave implications for the future wellbeing of many thousands of children.

Mrs Holmes backed her case by quoting the classic theory of emotional attachments developed more than 40 years ago by Dr John Bowlby, confirming children's deep-seated need to bond with their mothers. However, she did not add that Bowlby later revised his theory to include any stable relationship with an adult. Nor did she mention that subsequent research confirmed children's ability to form more than one such attachment - with a carer and with parents, for example.

The debate on whether working mothers are harming their children may continue in the press but in the academic world there is little disagreement. A comprehensive review of the evidence published recently in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry concluded that two-year-olds are unlikely to suffer harm from day care. That said, some studies suggested that children of less than a year who spent more than 20 hours a week in day care might not develop as fast. But even these suggestions remained unproven, the review said.

In fact, it concluded, there could be positive advantages to taking children out of the home, particularly for those from deprived backgrounds who may suffer from cramped conditions and a lack of stimulation. A US study showed that after a good nursery education, young people were five times less likely to become delinquent and three times more likely to own their own houses when they grew up.

The key word here is "quality". The experts say that very young children need a high staffing ratio, a quiet environment and plenty of space so that they are not crowded. It is also vital that they build lasting relationships, and the best nurseries have a "key worker" system so that each child knows who to turn to in moments of insecurity.

There is a question mark over the quality of care young children are now receiving. The National Children's Bureau has just launched a three- year research project aimed at developing good training for nursery staff. Its authors say child care often fails to reach a sufficiently high standard, with many nurseries having a high staff turnover. It is difficult for children to form the close ties they need with either adults or children, they say, because they may see different people each time they attend.

Ironically, the nursery departments of the prep schools that Mrs Holmes represents may not always be the best places for the very young. They are exempt from the Children Act, which says there must be a member of staff for every three under-threes, and they are not subject to the four- yearly inspections that comparable state schools receive.

Many parents are aware of these shortcomings and yet they continue to send their children to such schools and nurseries in ever-greater numbers. This is not because they are uncaring or even because they do not want to spend time with their children, but because they have little choice. The need to work and pressure from employers play a large part in their decisions. Fathers work an average of 47 hours per week and, although women are more often part-time workers, they may have to leave their children in nurseries for long periods.

Given the chance, people do choose to spend more time with their children. In Sweden, where both mothers and fathers share a total of 15 months' paid leave when they have a child, the number of babies in nurseries has dropped from 3,000 in 1975 to just 200 today. Although there is high-quality care available, children in Sweden tend to stay at home until around 18 months of age. And when parents do return to work, they take advantage of employers' more sympathetic attitudes and spread the load between them, so that most children spend only six or seven hours per day in care. In Britain, the natural desire of parents to spend more time with their young children is frustrated because the workplace is so much less supportive.

Paddy Holmes's poorly argued comments this week will only have compounded that frustration, by feeding on fears that children are damaged by being in nursery care. She picked the wrong target. The research does not bear out these fears. Mrs Holmes would have been wiser, instead, to attack the real problem: the unwillingness on the part of the Government and employers to foster a working world that would allow parents to do what most quite clearly want to do: care for their young children themselves.