The besetting problem in childcare research has been – and to some extent still is – a problem of over-simplification. The question that dominated the field was “Does separation from mothers into child care do children harm?”
This question has been asked many times in different ways, countries, settings and samples, and with different degrees of scientific rigor. No clear scientific answer has emerged because the issue was not as simple as the question suggested. Which child and mother? When and for how long? Which care setting and caregiver? And by what definition of harm?
When inconsistent, even contradictory findings concerning personally salient issues are produced repeatedly over a long period, people naturally choose the ones that fit their own agendas. Journalists are not the only ones to do this – sometimes policy makers and academics interpret the very same sets of research results as supporting opposing conclusions.
Nowadays of course, most childcare researchers do realise that it is not only the fact of being separated from mothers that matters to children but also issues of the quality of that experience: how the separation is handled and what happens to them while they are being cared for by others. However early considerations of quality of care were also over-simplified, with interest focused on variables such as group sizes, staff:child ratios and caregivers’ qualifications – i.e. those features which can be regulated by government.
Those things indeed matter, and the FCCC study has duly taken them into account. However they are not the whole story. When quality of care is measured by those means alone, a lot of children in ‘good’ settings don’t do as well as would be expected, and a lot of children in ‘poor’ settings do better. We have to take into account subtler processes and interactions that are more difficult to regulate.
Children’s characteristics matter. Gender for example; little boys are more vulnerable biologically than little girls. And relationship variables are crucial, especially the sensitivity/responsivity of the mother or caregiver. In fact maternal sensitivity – keeping a child in mind, and being responsive to them without being intrusive – often shows up as the most important variable in a child’s development.
Position of this study relative to others
1. IT IS A UK STUDY
…and that is important. It is only after a generation of mainly excellent American childcare research that it is becoming clear how misleading it can be to generalise findings from one country to another.
Local arrangements and conditions, attitudes and expectations are enormously important to the pragmatics of work-home balance. For example, in the UK and much of Europe, the majority of women with children work part time. In the US there is much less part-time work for women and almost none available in managerial and professional jobs.
Standards and settings vary from place to place often more than they appear to. (For example, American “family child care” is not directly equivalent to “childminding” in the UK.)
Age of entry to non-maternal care has long been considered a cause for concern, but principally depends on widely varying parental leave arrangements. For example, 18 months leave is common in Germany, versus 6 weeks in the US and 18 weeks here in the UK.
Even the desirable qualities of caregivers cannot be generalised from place to place. For example, In the US and UK poor nursery-care is often blamed on caregivers’ lack of training and experience, and their related low job satisfaction and high turnover. But in an Israeli study which identified very low levels of quality, the mean age of the caregivers was 43 years; most had more than 10 years experience, had been in the same centre for more than 6 years and loved their jobs.
2. IT IS AN IN-DEPTH STUDY
This is by no means the first UK study, but most other large ones have either been studies carried out by economists using data collected retrospectively from adults about childhoods two or three decades ago, or studies too general in breadth to focus in sufficient detail on child care.
In contrast, FCCC is specifically focused on the relationships between child care and outcomes for children, and probes deeply into the complexities of how those come about and what they mean.
When thinking about quality of childcare it is not legitimate to generalise without knowing about family background. For example, good quality child care is better than poor quality for all children, but good quality child care can be especially beneficial to underprivileged children, whilst the possible negative effects of poor quality child care can be less pronounced for children from privileged homes.
Similarly, it is not possible to generalise without knowing more about the children. The quality of care children experience in any one setting, including their own family homes, partly depends on their individual characteristics and needs. Furthermore, care quality should not be considered a static variable, but rather a complex interaction between the child, the carer and other children in the group.
Finally it is rash to generalise from information gathered at a single age-point. Children’s needs change as they grow which means that the aspects of care most crucial to a nine month baby may be different to those most crucial to a three-month, or indeed a three year old.