Family support more important than pre-school care in securing children's wellbeing

July 14, 2015

The government needs to focus as much on supporting deprived and disadvantaged families as it does on increasing the number of hours of free pre-school care if it is to secure the best outcomes for young children, according to new research from the University of Warwick.

In a book due to be launched on Wednesday 15 July Dr Angela Davis explores attitudes towards childcare throughout the 20th century and reveals that most adults' recollections of child care are positive when they come from a happy stable family, whereas the memories of those who come from unstable families are often negative.

She claims this has significant policy implications for the current government and says continued support for troubled families is equally as important as increasing the number of free childcare hours for three and four year olds.

Dr Davis said: "Childcare has always been a hot topic and there've been disagreements over the years about what's better for children, whether it's day nurseries, nursery schools and classes, playgroups, child-minders, or just staying at home with mum.

"What my findings show is that the memories of adults are largely determined by the quality of family life - rather than how they were looked after when they were young. If you're from a happy home, you're likely to remember childcare positively, regardless of what those arrangements were.

"Even good quality childcare will not alone militate against the effects of deprivation and disadvantage; early intervention working with parents, as well as children, will have the best long-term outcomes. Hence the proposed increased in the number of free childcare hours for three and four year olds needs to take place in tandem with continued support for families in the form of schemes such as Sure Start or the Troubled Families programme."

As well as considering the effects of contemporary views of childcare, the book also looks back at how competing ideas between the physical and mental wellbeing of young children between the 1930s and 2010 influenced the low levels of provision of childcare outside the home.

"In the 1950s and 1960s the question of how to care for the under-fives seemed uncontroversial to many people because it was assumed they would be best off at home with mother. Yet, when I probed beneath this assumption, it became clear that the issue was in fact one of intense debate," added Dr Davis.

"But despite the social and political dynamism of the decades between the 1930s and 1990s, there was little change in the level of state-provided pre-school childcare and the similarities in attitude of successive governments during the second half of the twentieth century, despite the different party in power, are noteworthy.

"I argue in the book that government action (or inaction) during this period, was due to three main ideas - first is that care for the under-fives was the responsibility of individual families, not the state; second, young children were best off at home with their mothers; and third, any care that was offered to the under-fives should be cost effective.

"A combination of factors - the dominance of psychology and psychological medicine in Britain in the second half of the century, the traditional reluctance of the state to get involved in private family matters and the low priority afforded to financing childcare during periods of economic recession - all contributed to the low level of pre-school childcare available in comparison to other European countries."

University of Warwick

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