CANADA. Maternity leave is to be doubled as babies are said to do better if they spend more time with their parents. Nathan Greenfield reports
THE release of three major North American studies has prompted a national debate about the relative importance of parenting and schools in Canadian children's academic achievement.
The studies have found that parenting style is more influential than social class in determining success, that children who attend early-years education or kindergarten perform better than their peers who stay at home, and that parental support has a greater impact on boys' attainment than girls'.
The issues are at the heart of the Liberal government's political agenda. It announced plans to extend maternity leave from six months to a year - only the second Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country to do so - when parliament opened on October 13.
According to human resources minister Jane Stewart, Canadian children will grow to become better adults if they have the chance to spend more time with their parents during their first year of life.
The studies, issued by Statistics Canada, all use data collected under the National Longitudinal Study of Youth which is tracking 22,000 Canadian children between the ages of two and 11.
Contrary to expectations, the study on parenting styles and social class, which sampled 19,000 of the families in the youth study, found that parenting styles - authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, permissive irrational - are distributed in the same proportions across socio-economic groups.Children whose parents are authoritative - who are nurturing, set firm limits but present behavioural options within those limits - are more likely to be in the top of their classes than the offspring of authoritarian (controlling) or permissive parents.
At the same time, childcare advocates have hailed the finding of Dr Garth Lipps and Dr Jackie Yiptong-Avila, from Statistics Canada, that early-years schooling (age 3-4) or kindergarten (age 5) improved a child's performance.
"These children were 1.4 times more likely to be rated by their teachers as being near the top of their class in mathematics achievement in grade 1 than those who stayed at home with a parent," says the report, entitled From Home to School - How Canadian Children Cope.
The study does not speculate as to reasons, but, according to Mary-Ann Bird, executive director of the Child Care Advocacy Association, it both dispels the myth that children are somehow harmed by organised childcare and supports other studies which have shown that well-designed, stimulating programmes can help children get off to a good start. "It shows that services that are designed to support children and families in the early years pay off later," she said.
A third study, by academics at New York University, found that boys are more reliant on parental support to succeed at school than girls. While school success for both sexes is influenced by many factors outside of the school itself, boys are "particularly vulnerable to school problems if parental support were diminished in any way", the study found.