A report in today's Irish Times suggests that children who are preschooled don't just do better economically and educationally, but also grow up to be more moral.
They quote Dr Larry Schweinhart, who carried out research on a preschool scheme launched in the 1960s. According to this research, children who attend preschool are less likely to lie, cheat or steal as adults, a conference was told yesterday.
However, they fail to give due prominence to one salient detail: the programme in question, the Perry programme, was a small scale intervention, designed to target at-risk families from impoverished backgrounds who had very low IQs of between 70 and 85. The programme also worked with parents.
Therefore, it is very hard to argue that the lessons of this very specific programme can be applied to the entire population including not-at-risk children (meaning not-at-risk of social disadvantage). Most children are in this not-at-risk category and this means most parents can relax; their children will NOT be less moral because they’re not placed in preschool.
Kevin Milligan, a Canadian economist who is dubious about campaigns for State-funded universal day-care based on research from programmes aimed at small, targeted populations with special needs.
Milligan confirms that the main evidence cited in favour of universal preschooling and childcare programmes is drawn from studies on “at-risk” populations. He accepts that such interventions can show “big returns” where they are targeted at such populations.
But he adds: “The criticism I have is that it’s not obvious that what we learn from those studies can be applied to the case of full-day kindergarten.”
Milligan says the assumption that applying such intensive interventions across an entire population will result in universal benefits is “a fairly big one”.
He points to research that he and other colleagues conducted into a universal daycare programme in Quebec which found evidence that there were “negative behavioural consequences on many of these kids. By behavioural consequences I’m talking about things like their behavioural scores on negative behaviours” (such as aggression).
Milligan also points out that advocates for universal preschooling/daycare have been quite cavalier in their use of the work of a Nobel laureate, Dr James Heckmann, which they claim supports their position.
Dr Heckmann, Milligan says, “ has written very clearly that the evidence is quite strong on at-risk interventions”.
Milligan adds, however that Dr Heckman “very, very, very clearly states that he is not in favour of universal programs” on the basis that it is not “obvious that you can make comparisons from at-risk families to non-at-risk families”.
Academic evidence contrary to the pro-childcare agenda has been distorted on other occasions as well. In 2001, Professor Jay Belsky, a leading child development expert, headed up a team on the subject of childcare.
They were about to publish their findings which were broadly negative in respect of childcare, but according to Belsky, his colleagues were “running from this data like a nuclear bomb went off” because his colleagues were ideologically committed to the idea that childcare was positive.
Professor Belsky said: “They're so busy trying to protect mothers from feeling guilty, they've lost track of the science.”
Belsky has studied the impact that the amount of time infants spend in childcare has on their development through to their teenage years and adulthood. To date, studies with which he has been involved show that an increase in levels of aggression and disobedience is correlated with a greater amount of time spent in childcare at an early age.
Milligan also points out that, in the Perry programme so often cited to justify universal childcare, the definition of at risk was quite specific.
He says: “To be in the Perry Preschool Project, which was one of these evaluations that is often cited, the child had to have an IQ in the range of 70 to 85. Now IQ is not the only measure of wellbeing, far from it, but the point is that kids who have a 70 to 85 IQ are really struggling.”
The bottom line is that the evidence in favour of childcare is limited, and mainly relates to specific, targetted interventions. In terms of childcare overall, there seems to be a growing body of research suggesting some negative outcomes.
Of course, many mothers have no option but to place their children in childcare or preschool, especially with the Government's tax individualisation policy virtually pushing them into paid work. But that is no reason to blind ourselves to what the evidence actually tells us about it, rather than just listening to the evidence we like.