Research highlights limitation of government policy in tackling childhood inequality

Tuesday, July 7, 2015 - 09:15

New research from Maynooth University has revealed the limitations of current government policy in tackling childhood inequality. Dr Delma Byrne and Dr Catriona O’Toole, from the Department of Sociology and the Department of Education at Maynooth University, explored the influence of childcare arrangements where both parents work, on a child’s physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional development. They have called for even greater governmental focus on the provision of childcare options to address disadvantage.

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The research is the first of its kind in Ireland to consider the influence of childcare arrangements, from early childhood until the age of nine, using data collected from the national longitudinal study of children, ‘Growing Up in Ireland.’

This gave the researchers a nationally representative sample size of over 11,000 infants and 8,500 children. 
The data allowed them to examine:

  • The factors influencing the uptake of non-parental childcare options - crèche, childminders, grandparents, after school clubs and others - at the ages of 9 months, 3 years and 9 years.
  • The influence of these choices on child development between 9 months and 3 years
  • The impact of after-school care arrangements on children’s outcomes at age 9 years.

The research finds there is unequal access to non-parental childcare during childhood, from infancy to middle childhood.  Those living in high income households and households with employment are more likely to access non-parental childcare throughout childhood.
Despite the implementation of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme, which provides a universal free pre-school year, there are clear barriers to accessing non-parental childcare outside the hours provided by the ECCE scheme, and outside the period of childhood covered by the scheme which includes childcare during infancy and after-school childcare when children are older.
In terms of the impact of different childcare arrangements on children between the ages of 9 months and 3 years, the report is particularly illuminating. It shows the need for families to have universally available access to a range of care and education choices:

  • Babies in centre-based care show greater abilities in fine motor skills (e.g. turning of page, holding of pencil) than babies who have not attended centre based care.
  • However, babies cared for by relatives at 9 months are demonstrably stronger in vocabulary / naming skills.  This category (e.g. being cared for by grandparents), is the only one in which higher scores were shown for this type of cognitive development.
  • Parents often report concern about the impact on babies’ health of attending centre-based care (e.g. a crèche), but the study finds that by age 3, this concern does not emerge as a factor in how parents rate their children’s health at age three.
  • There was no effect of the type of childcare arrangement used in infancy on socio-emotional development by age three.

The authors stress that children’s physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional development is influenced by earlier developmental milestones, and developmental outcomes are also determined by the level of resources in the family, as well as childcare settings.
Report author Dr Byrne observed: “There is a tendency to view investment in early childcare care and education as the ultimate policy instrument for abolishing inequalities in childhood; however, in a context of increasing childhood deprivation, a more nuanced perspective is required. While investment in high quality care and education is crucial, the effectiveness of such should not detract from continued investment in families and care and education throughout childhood. Our study identifies clear inequalities in access to childcare at all stages of childhood, and highlights that children come from families with different levels of resources, each of which influence child development. This report broadens our understanding of the relative effectiveness of investment in these different areas.”
Report author Dr O’Toole said: “The research highlights that there is no single childcare type that is necessarily better or worse than any other. Children and families are complex and have diverse childcare needs. Therefore, a multi-strategy approach to childcare is appropriate, whereby consideration to given to the development of warm, responsive and stimulating environments for all children, regardless of whether they are cared for in the formal early years sector, with childminders, relatives, or by stay-at-home parents.”
“Furthermore, our report highlights that there is considerable reliance on relatives (most of whom are grandparents) to provide childcare for families in Ireland especially during the infancy period. The positive outcomes in language and communication development associated with care by grandparents may indicate that children do particularly well when they and their families have access to a wide circle of social support.”
The study was commissioned in 2012 by the Family Support Agency (now Tusla, the Child and Family Agency) in collaboration with the Irish Research Council.