• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 02nd May, 2007

Nursery report makes transatlantic waves

It must say something about the insecurities of parenting on both sides of the Atlantic when coverage in The Guardian newspaper of long-term research by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development generates several yards of correspondence and weblog responses, some of it almost as lurid in its prejudices as a recording of The Jerry Springer Show.The cause of all the fuss was a feature by Guardian associate editor Madeleine Bunting. She reported that more evidence had emerged to suggest that in Britain and America alike children who have been in group care, such as nurseries, in their pre-school years, are more likely to be aggressive and persistently disruptive once they reach school.Taken at face value, the research seemed to be striking indiscriminately: at the frail self confidence of the struggling single working mother and at the creche-hopping lifestyle of metropolitan high achieving couples.Ms Bunting who returned to Guardian journalism last autumn after a single turbulent month as director of the think-tank, Demos, observed: "Dropping baby off at nursery has become a standard part of British family life in the past decade. It is now the most popular form of non-parental childcare in this country, providing almost double the number of places offered by childminders. "It is estimated that in England more than 800,000 children up to the age of four are in group-based care for at least some of the time - that's nearly a third of the age group."But over almost exactly the same period, several studies in different countries into the adverse and long-term impact of group-based care on children have reached strikingly similar conclusions. They make uncomfortable reading for parents. Now it's happened again."In some studies the troubling findings have been cushioned by indications that quality of group care compensates for the risk that it may lead to disruptive behavior. But the new NICHD research says that the more time over 10 hours a week children spend in group care, irrespective of its quality, the more likely teachers are to report that their behavior is more difficult at school. "The concern is not that individuals become ‘axe murderers or rapists’," The Guardian piece continued. "but to discover the cumulative effect of millions of children being slightly more difficult"."Among the big, and really difficult, questions is: what contribution is wider use of group care making to other social problems, such as teachers' claims of a deterioration in classroom behaviour or recent reports of an increase in bullying? "Equally troubling is whether the wider use of daycare could be influencing the increase in mental ill-health among teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic."Two possible explanations need more research, she concludes:"First, there could be something about the dynamics of peer pressure among small children; a kind of "push and grab" competitiveness which, if not handled correctly, leads to a higher incidence of aggression throughout childhood. Another possibility is that group-based care is inherently stressful and children's cortisol levels are raised."Another aspect of this story is the way it highlights the changing relationship between the scientific community, the responsible press and the rejuvenated influence of the general - and generally anonymous - reader. Ms Bunting told her story in 850 words; by around lunchtime on the day it was published, it had attracted 17,000 words of printable comment.

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