Scaring mothers? It's Panorama's bit of fun

Working women have always suffered from flawed and facile attacks on them
Puzzlement - to put it politely - greeted the social survey on which Panorama based last night's programme "Missing Mum" (working title, perhaps, "I Blame the Mothers"). The programme used an unpublished survey by Professor Margaret O'Brien of the University of North London, which purports to prove that full-time working mothers damage their children.

Replete with emotive scenes, the programme showed how much worse children of full-time working mothers do in exams. The research was based on a study of 600 two-parent families in Barking and Dagenham, a largely white community with mothers working mainly in lower clerical grades. But social scientists were puzzled by findings that contradict so many studies in Britain and America.

Several were surprised that a whole Panorama was largely based on research that is not yet published, has not yet been submitted to a reputable journal of social research or subjected to the usual rigorous peer review process. (The programme also drew on a small Californian study of 100 families.)

Panorama's press release hyped the research to guarantee it widespread newspaper coverage: "Women who juggle a full-time job with motherhood may jeopardise their children's future." It claimed 25 per cent of the children of women with full-time jobs gained no GCSEs, while only 11 per cent of children from families where mothers work only part-time gained no qualifications. Fascinating and frightening findings, especially for the 21 per cent of us guilty mothers who do work full time.

However, there was something not quite right about that press release. It gave figures for part-time and full-time mothers, but what of the children of stay-at-home mothers? Surely they must do best of all? The press release did not mention them at all, which was odd. Even odder, when I acquired the programme script, it did not mention them until page 21 of its 25 pages - and then only in a brief graphic. Why? Because the children of stay-at-home non-working mothers do worst of all. The script rapidly dismisses this by saying they are poorer families. Ah, so it is more complicated, perhaps, than Panorama suggests?

Of course it is. No study of human behaviour is ever simple - and if it looks simple it is usually fatally flawed. There are so many variables, so many subtle causations. This is unpublished work, unscrutinised by other professional sociologists and unfinished, as its author, flustered by all the alarmist headlines, hastened to emphasise yesterday. So we can only here ask all the questions Professor O'Brien's peers would ask before it was published in a reputable journal.

This is a survey of higher manual and lower clerical grade women living in Barking and Dagenham. How can you extrapolate the experiences of these families and apply them to, say, affluent families with access to the best nurseries, nannies, or indeed, a boarding school like Eton? Of course the programme did - showing an anxious very successful business woman who had now gone back to part-time working, to be with her children. (Oddly enough, this very same mother must be something of a professional BBC interviewee as a typical middle class mum: when I worked there I once interviewed the very same woman for a BBC item about child benefit.) If maternal absence is the most vital factor, wouldn't boarding school children do worst? If, on the other hand, maternal absence is only one of many indicators of success and failure, are you measuring the right thing?

Many studies show that high quality early nursery education is a key indicator of later academic success. Indeed yesterday the Institute of Child Health stressed its own research showing that children from good day-care do best of all. Does Professor O'Brien know anything about what day-care these children had when they were young? No, she admitted to me, she does not. She has studied them only between the ages of 14 and 16. She cannot sub-divide those who had good care from those who had bad: it might show that quality of care, not hours with mother is more significant.

Does she know how much time fathers spent with these children? (They are all two-parent families.) No, she says, she does not. Does she have a comparison of the total family income of both the part-time and the full-time working mother families? No, she says she does not. In fact, there are so many more questions to ask, you can add in your own here.

If you would like to consider the complexity of such surveys, take the work being done by Charlie Lewis, of the University of Lancaster, a previous co-author with Professor O'Brien. Investigating all the available studies, he found that paternal absence has a devastating effect on families. Children did worse in all respects. But once he corrected for the poverty effect of the absence of a father, he found, to his surprise, that the differences between families with and without a father diminished to a level below statistical significance.

Or take the work of Kathleen Kiernan of the LSE, who studies the huge National Child Development Study - a cohort of all the children born in one week in 1958. This survey has all the data on the families from birth. Kiernan finds where mothers are working when a child is 16, daughters do considerably better and sons quite a lot better than where mothers are not working at all - and this is true of both lone-parent and two- parent families.

Blaming the mothers is a good populist game - either these hard-working mothers or, as in a previous disgraceful Panorama, stay-at-home single mothers scrounging off the state. This programme is deeply politically incorrect in an era when most mothers work. But what if it is just plain incorrect?

This is not just an academic issue. This research will remain in the popular imagination for a decade or more. People will quote it to one another for years to come, even if it were to be debunked at some later date. It will make many families anxious and cause them to make wrong choices. (For instance, mothers who decide to abandon their careers may find themselves non-working lone parents later; and children of non-working lone parents do far worse than children of single mothers who work.) Mothers already think they are to blame for their children's character defects or failure to fulfill their potential. To be less than perfect is, of course, to be human and so is having a less than ideal mother. How many ways can a mother fail her child? Too many to count.

But now step back a pace or two and ask this question. Supposing Professor O'Brien's research is water-tight, what exactly are we supposed to be so worried about? Are we, as a society, worried that some children have less good opportunities than others? Do we worry that life is unfair to some children? If so, just look at the chasm that divides the children of the middle classes from those of the growing wretched underclass. Where is the Panorama blasting the monstrous iniquities which cause large numbers of children to fail from the day they draw breath?

But that is a boring old story. Far more fun to frighten the life out of the middle classes by suggesting Freddy and Fiona may not do so well at school because their mother is running British Steel (or indeed, like the mother who made this programme, staying up all night in the edit suite of Panorama).

Change is frightening and there has never been a social revolution as profound as women's liberation. Where is it all heading? There will be many more scare stories for a couple of generations until we get used to women's freedom. And often it is the women themselves who are most frightened by what we have done. But we have nothing to fear but fear itself - and the scare-mongerers who whip it up.