Everyone knows that pre-school child care is good for children and for the economy. Patricia Morgan asks for some evidence and argues that only the most expensive care can match a parentby Patricia Morgan / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
In the last ten years, child care has become the wonderbag remedy of the western world. To politicians of all stripes in Britain, it holds the key to economic success and social justice: the question is not whether, but how, to subsidise it.
The group Employers for Childcare wants a minister responsible for co-ordinating a national strategy. According to a study by Bronwen Cohen and Neil Fraser for the Institute for Public Policy Research, this will galvanise the economy by flooding it with eager skilled labour and allowing it to run “at a higher level” in one continuous boom time. With “affordable, universally available, quality child care” poor one-income families can be turned into better off two-income ones.
By coincidence-child care has also become the way we are supposed to change children’s lives for the better. The Transport and General Workers’ Union insists that it is as fundamental to the quality of life of the nation’s children as shelter, sustenance, and schooling. It will stimulate their learning and enhance their social development; provide them with secure, happy and healthy surroundings and unleash their potential. Parental care, by comparison, appears to be a form of neglect.
The child care lobby has achieved a tremendous propaganda putsch by equating day care with pre-school nursery education. But furthering maternal employment and early education are two separate goals; a measure which facilitates one may do little or nothing to foster the other. Childminding studies point to a large number of disturbed children with language problems as a result of many unhappy days spent with carers who are often unresponsive and ignorant.
Nursery schools and playgroups are designed for the educational needs of older pre-schoolers, who go there for short periods of two or three hours a day. But children whose mothers have full-time jobs attend day care centres for sometimes eight or ten hours a day. This is considered far too long by most child development experts.
With regard to nursery education, there is no evidence to suggest that anything is gained by extending it beyond a 12-month period between the ages of three and five, or by increasing the hours beyond short half day sessions. Nursery education usually involves developing narrow aspects of intellect and language. It is arguable whether it has any impact on achievement in the long run over and above the influence of family background.
What informs many of the extravagant claims made on behalf of nursery education is the Perry pre-school project, Michigan, US, which closed its doors 25 years ago. From this comes the figure of $7 saved for every $1 invested, so frequently cited in child care studies. Compared to other 27-year-olds from the same background, ex-Perry pupils were more literate; they had spent fewer years in special schools, had completed more years of schooling, received fewer social services, and had fewer arrests and illegitimate births.
But Perry was a very intensive early learning programme with individual teaching, using highly trained, well paid staff with a very low turnover, and supervised by curriculum specialists. Children attended classes for a total of only 12.5 hours a week, with four teachers to 20-25 children. Teachers also paid weekly home visits to each child. The children were aged between three and four and most went on the programme for a year.
By no stretch of the imagination can the project be compared to 40 to 60 hours a week of day care between the ages of zero and five. And because of the home visiting, it is impossible to attribute the impressive results to the centre programme only. More importantly, Perry’s results were based on 123 very disadvantaged, low IQ, black children, at severe risk of every form of failure and institutionalisation. Their example is irrelevant to ordinary middle and working class children, who will be doing better anyway.
Perry was also unique. There have been numerous other experimental programmes in the US for very deprived children and none has achieved the same results.
While good results from quite unrepresentative show projects are publicised as if they were typical, the studies of the sort of day care routinely used by working mothers for ordinary children are far more likely to report undesirable side effects.
It is widely believed that simply putting small children together is good for their social development, but there is nothing like a peer group for encouraging anti-social behaviour. There is a raft of studies from different parts of the world showing more, and often persistent, aggression and disobedience among children who have spent long hours in group care.
When Jay Belsky, a leading American authority on child development, drew attention to these disconcerting findings in the mid-1980s, a firestorm of controversy broke over his head. But similar findings have continued to come in and critics have had to concede that infants whose mothers work full time are consistently and significantly more likely to be insecurely attached-whether to mother, father or both.
The emotional bond with parents is a central element in human development. Children with secure attachment histories are more socially competent and confident as they grow older; they are emotionally more mature, and likely to have superior intellectual development.
A large-scale study of eight-year-olds in Texas showed that those who received the most extensive and earliest child care had exhibited the poorest emotional and intellectual development.
Virtually the only British study on the subject, by the Thomas Coram research unit, showed that middle class children-who ought to have been doing better than average-had poorer language skills at age six than their home-based peers. Unpublished data also showed that lower intellectual development was connected to the high turnover of caregivers-a common feature of out of home care.
So, is day care harmful to small children? Is early education advantageous? It all depends on the sex, age, health, temperament and maturity of the child, as well as the type, duration and quality of the substitute care.
But on balance? Two Canadian researchers gathered information from 88 studies (involving 22,000 children) published since 1957. They concluded that regular nonparental care for more than 20 hours per week had an unmistakably detrimental effect on behaviour and attachment, and, to a lesser extent, on intellectual development.
Child care is a highly political subject and any concern over outcomes for children tends to invoke furious accusations about “putting women back in the kitchen.” Moreover, child care exponents benefit from heavy public funding; with access to the finances and facilities of the EU, as well as British bodies such as the Equal Opportunities Commission, and the Family Policy Studies Centre.
To develop properly, children need sensitive, responsive, consistent and affectionate care, from highly involved carers. This can take place outside the home. It is most likely to happen in a stimulating environment, where there is a trained and stable workforce, a group size of preferably no more than six infants and an adult-child ratio of at least one to three.
All this is expensive and extremely difficult to arrange. The slogan “affordable, universally available, good quality child care” is just a mantra. Affordable care is low quality care. Universally available high quality care has been achieved nowhere on earth. The former Soviet Union, Sweden and now Denmark, have all discovered that, as you try to provide for more children, costs escalate and quality falls.