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The Government needs to focus more on supporting families, say academics after finding children who spend more time in nurseries are more likely to have behavioural problems, particularly hyperactivity.
Nearly half a million of children under five are currently cared for in nursery, according to the Department for Education.
Affordable childcare is the buzzword of all the three main political parties at the moment, all keen to secure the votes of working parents. So this study looks set to reopen the debate over what type of care is best for children in the early years.
The study led by Professor Alan Stein of Oxford University’s Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, looked at the impact of different forms of childcare on children's behavioural and emotional development, just prior to starting school.
He said: “One finding that did emerge was that children who spent more time in group care, mainly nursery care, were more likely to have behavioural problems, particularly hyperactivity.
“Children receiving more care by childminders were more likely to have peer problems.”
He qualified these findings to daynurseries.co.uk by saying “I think the most important thing to emphasise is that the strongest and most consistent influence on behaviour and emotional development is derived from the home with the quality of parental care being the most important. This is likely to be the case because this is where the earliest influences begin and where children spend most of their time.
“As we point out in our article there are some small influences of non-parental care on children’s later development. I think it is important to emphasise that these are small and that most children do very well.
“My colleague Professor Kathy Sylva, was a co-author and has shown in other work that non-parental care can have considerable benefits as well. I think it is important to emphasise this so that parents and other care givers and care providers get a balanced view.”
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive for the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), rejected the findings and extolled the benefits of nursery care saying: “International evidence has proven that children who attend childcare such as a nurseries gain an advantage in all areas of development.
“Long-term studies of a large sample of children, such as those carried out by Professor Kathy Sylva, have found children attending early education experience no negative effects in development outcomes, and where childcare is of a high quality, children demonstrate clear development gains in language, cognitive development and peer sociability.”
She added that the Government’s initiative to extend free early education to the 20 per cent most disadvantaged two year olds in England from this September is “recognition that the experience of day nurseries plays a vital role in improving children’s development outcomes and that children reap the benefit of early education in their later schooling”.
Neil Leitch, chief executive at the Pre-school Learning Alliance does not agree with “labelling children or using a subjective term like 'behavioural difficulties'”.
He said: “Childcare professionals understand how a child’s stage of development may affect their behaviour and many other factors should be taken into account such as their home situation.
“Parents are their children’s most important educators which is why our members place such emphasis on the importance of the ‘key person role’ and working in partnership with every parent who accesses their childcare.
“The latest study from Oxford University was conducted with children aged 51 months which could well reflect children at a time of one of the ‘key transitions’ in their lives – a significant time and period of change for many children who will be moving away from their early years environment into formal schooling. We very much support Professor Kathy Sylva’s view that quality of care that matters much more than whether a child is at home or in childcare.”
Over the past few decades there has been a dramatic increase in mums returning to work and, as a result, an increase in the use of nurseries and other forms of childcare. The free entitlement brought in by the Labour Government of free childcare for all three to four-year-olds has helped to boost these numbers. The Coalition Government has continued with this policy and is now offering free childcare to a fifth of disadvantaged two-year-olds.
However Mr Leitch is concerned over the motives of the Government and believes that given the choice many parents would prefer to stay at home and look after their children rather than work.
He said: “The rhetoric is about getting parents back into the work environment. The vast majority of parents I have talked to (mainly mums) have said if they had the choice of changing their working pattern so they could spend more time with their children, and it wouldn’t cripple them financially, they would.”
His concern is childcare is being “seen predominantly as a mechanism for getting parents back to work and solving the economic crisis that we have. The childcare agenda has gone too far in the direction of a back to work policy instead of a cohesive what-is-best-for-the-family approach.”
The team of Oxford University researchers looked at 991 families, originally recruited when the children were three months old.
Assessments were carried out at different ages with direct observations of the quality of care given by the parents and the child care providers. Researchers also looked at the amount of time children spent in nursery, with childminders and with their parents.
The children had a final assessment at the age of four and a quarter with parents and teachers filling in questionnaires.
The strongest and consistent influence on a child’s behavioural and emotional problems was found to be the parents.
Professor Stein concluded in the study which was published in the journal Child, Care, Health and Development: “These findings suggest that interventions to enhance children's emotional and behavioural development might best focus on supporting families and augmenting the quality of care in the home.”