WORKING mothers are constantly blamed for society's ills - from youth crime to family breakdown and from educational under-achievement to teen pregnancies.
Despite the fact that increasing numbers of women play twin roles of employee and mother, most adults in Britain still believe that if a woman works before her child starts school then the child will suffer. This view is most common among men, but the 1994 British Social Attitudes Survey showed almost half of working women agree.
But this view gets little support from a new research study from the Institute of Education. Maternal employment and child outcomes looks at the experiences of children and young adults to find what effect, if any, having a working mother has on children's life chances. It suggests that the quality of care a child receives is more important than who provides it.
Professor Heather Joshi and Dr Georgia Verropoulou used interviews of 1,700 children, aged five to 17. They found that a mother's employment during the first year of a child's life tended to lead to problems later on - particularly with literacy. But "at all other ages under five there is no evidence for a negative effect," they say.
Indeed, there seem to be benefits for older children. The report suggests that the children of working mothers are more relaxed and happy - perhaps resulting from better social skills.
Professor Joshi and Dr Verropoulou then looked at a second study of 9,000 people born in 197.
Educational achievement at age 10 was "not significantly related" to whether their mothers worked five years earlier. But it also showed that children whose mothers worked in their pre-school years were less likely to get good qualifications: "Later child development may be impaired when mothers go out to work early in their (children's) lives, especially during their infancy, but also some of the benefits to be gained (in emotional adjustment) where mothers work in later pre-school years. Neither good nor bad effects are great."
Longer maternity leave and better day care would minimise adverse effects on young children, the report argues. More flexible employment schemes for parents would also help.
Both studies showed that poverty has a larger impact on a child's development than whether the mother works - suggesting that the monetary benefits of working may off-set damage caused by the mothers' absence.
But one report, however well researched, is unlikely to settle the debate over working mums or make mothers themselves worry less. As it says: "No statistical report can ever prove what would be best for a child. What these results show is how diverse children and families are."
THE EFFECT OF WORKING MUMS
* Children whose mothers work are less likely to worry or be unhappy.
* Poverty and a mother's education have a bigger effect on a child's development than a mother's employment status.
* No effect on probability of unemployment, slight effect on qualifications.
* Working during the first year of a child's life tends to lead to poorer outcomes - especially in reading.