Patricia Casey: 'The childcare debate - has anybody asked the children?'
The mantra in Ireland is that children sent to crèches in their pre-school years fare better in the long term than those staying at home.
This view has had significant traction for at least 25 years, if not more. It is entwined with the Government's increasingly determined efforts to send more women into the workplace. As a once full-time working mother, and now a part-time one, I remain sceptical of any social experiment directed at women which might directly impact upon children.
The dual focus on childcare and politics was spotlighted recently with the RTÉ programme on the Hyde and Seek crèches. Immediately there were calls for Government-run crèches rather than private facilities.
Very few commentators raised the possibility of thinking again about the wisdom of state-run childcare or re-evaluating the merits of non-family childcare compared to home-based childcare from the extended family.
Most importantly, nobody asked what parents themselves want for their children's care when they are working outside the home. All parents, especially mothers, whether they are working in the pitifully low minimum wage bracket or are in the highest bracket as chief executives or university professors, want the best for their children.
We all know that the cusp of early childhood is particularly important in how the child will develop. As the Jesuits and Aristotle are variously credited with saying, "give me the child until he is seven, and I'll show you the man".
The promoters of childcare outside the home use the hard sell to entice parents into enrolling their children in crèches. Every discussion on our national radio and TV networks is filled with commentators extolling the virtues of pre-school education, dressing up crèches as educational resources.
The appeal for parents lies in the promise of better academic and social outcomes for their children if they opt for this. It is as if choosing an alternative, personalised childcare approach makes them responsible for childhood deprivation. There is nothing quite like pricking one's conscience to change behaviour and that's what the aficionados of state-run, pre-school education have succeeded in doing. The Hyde and Seek debacle has thrown up many searching questions.
What the research shows in this is not what is claimed by our Government. And, in this instance, there is home-grown data to demonstrate the impact from the Growing Up in Ireland study, an evaluation of the progress of children over time using various measures. A study called 'Non-Parental Childcare and Child Cognitive Outcomes at Age Five' (2015) examined vocabulary and ability to reason in children aged three. There was no significant difference whether children were in crèche care, parental care or some other type.
A second study, 'Childcare, Early Education and Socio-Emotional Outcomes at Age Five' (2016), examined outcomes such as behaviour and it found no difference in outcome by type of childcare. However, there was a small beneficial effect for children from disadvantaged backgrounds or lone-parent households.
A study commissioned in 2012 by the former Child and Family Support agency, now incorporated in Tusla, and authored by Drs Delma Byrne and Catriona O'Toole from NUI Maynooth, reported: "There was no significant impact of centre-based care on early cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes. However, our findings highlight the positive effects of care in infancy by relatives on later outcomes in the area of language and communication. Clearly, relatives and grandparents are providing a vital service within families in Ireland".
And there is evidence from international studies that centre-based care of more than 32 hours each week had an adverse impact on language and cognitive development.
Interestingly at a time when the voice of the child is being given a hearing, little attention has been given to the view of children on this contentious topic. Inevitably they must be old enough to have adequate language and to be in a position to experience a variety of after-school activities.
Again, we have an Irish-based survey on the opinions of children conducted by researchers from UCC and published in a 2016 report. Various age groups described dislikes and likes but positive mention was made about home and relatives, according to the report. The ideal after-school activities described by five- to seven- year-olds were play and eating, followed by relaxation and home. For eight- to 12-year-olds the "children voted for home as the place they would most like to be cared for after school (59pc). This was followed by friends' houses (17pc), relatives (13pc), an after-school club (6pc), childminder (4pc) and crèche (1pc)". Why are the voice of children not being heard in this regard?
Having considered the preferences of children, what about parents? Do they have a desire to place their children in corporate care institutions during the day? The research shows that, overwhelmingly, parents want their pre-school children to be cared for by a parent in their home or by another family member. For some this is aspirational, but aspirations are the drivers of change.
Taking the totality of the information from studies of the impact on children's cognitive and other developments, the wishes of children themselves and of their parents, it is astounding the Government is not more embarrassed by its relentless touting of the pre-school agenda and the over-egging of its benefits.
Katherine Zappone, the Children's Minister, said: "It is good for children in terms of their development. It is good for parents who want access to education, training and work. It is good for the economy." The evidence so far is that her views regarding child development represent the triumph of optimism over reality.