Middle-class fears mask survey findings

7th February 1997 at 00:00
The middle-class angst over working mothers generated by Panorama this week has obscured the findings of research that set out to look for links between family life and exam results in a predominately working-class area.

Although the programme cited Professor Margaret O'Brien's research, the families studied by her team at the University of North London were not in the main high-powered, middle-class professionals juggling nannies, nurseries and train time-tables.

In fact, the research does not take any account of whether children were in day care before the age of five, but looks only at the working patterns of parents with 14-year-olds at six of the secondary schools in Barking and Dagenham. The programme did not make clear the findings were based on the GCSE results of 345 teenagers in an area where results were well below the national average.

In the main, mothers in the study worked in clerical posts and fathers tended to be in manual jobs. The research has not yet been published, but the information available from the university does not set out the difference in working hours between those mothers in full-time jobs and the ones working part-time.

In the days following the Panorama programme, the research has met an avalanche of criticism because it has been interpreted as an attack on women who worked full-time. Dr Ian Roberts, director of the child health monitoring unit at the Institute of Child Health, insisted there was no evidence that day care damaged the health or education of children.

Professor O'Brien's research, however, focuses on the two final years of schooling. The findings do appear to suggest that teenagers, particularly boys, with full-time working mothers are less likely than those with mothers working part-time to achieve good exam results. In the case of boys, those with full-time working mothers performed far worse than girls who also have mothers who work full-time.

The research, however, suggests that the teenagers most likely to fail are boys with mothers not in paid employment. Almost half the boys with mothers at home failed to get a single GCSE pass.

The preliminary analysis of the data notes that teenagers living in more traditional households with a non-working mother and a father working full-time achieved the poorest results among families with at least one parent working. In those families, the parents were less likely to have had post-school education.

The information gathered from teenagers suggests that they tended to confide in their mothers and to get on best with their mothers, though this was not as predominant where mothers were in full-time jobs.

According to Ceridwen Roberts, director of the Family Policy Studies centre, the research has to be seen as a small-scale study that may indicate an issue that requires further investigation.

"We don't know yet what was going on there. I don't think it can be dismissed. It is very hard to combine two careers with the responsibility for bringing up children.

"It may be that instead of worrying about the results of that small proportion of children with mothers working full-time, we should concentrate on that larger proportion who are not getting a good start because families are impoverished," Panorama's programme makers insist they took a serious look at the dilemmas facing parents in full-time work.

The only British research cited was the study carried out by Professor O'Brien, but a spokesman insisted: "We did not make any grandiose claims about the conclusions that could be drawn from the findings. It was included because we thought it was significant."

OPINION, page 18

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