VICTORIA WHITE: Parents must be free to choose how best to rear their children

Cash payments work for families. Robert Putnam, the US author of Bowling Alone, quotes research showing that a €3,000-a-year-payment in a child’s first three years improves that child’s academic performance and increases his or her eventual salary by 20%.

The official approval for investing in out-of-home childcare services to the cost of at-home care, which has been expressed this week following Minister Regina Doherty’s comment that she would look at cutting Child Benefit to fund childcare, is rooted in simplistic economic calculus.

What’s deemed important at official levels is getting women into paid jobs so they can make up the deficit of births in a dying First World without recourse to immigrants.

It is no surprise that the European Commission’s Joost Korte warned this week that favouring cash payments was not the “right” way to go, and that access to full-time, affordable out-of-home care was unacceptably poor.

His warning wasn’t on account of the children, mind. His problem was that there were too few women in the workplace which meant a lack of gender equality and also skills shortages.

The European Commission has been banging its childcare drum for decades now and will continue to do so until it no longer fears competition from countries with higher birth rates or no longer fears immigrants.

The commission actually committed the people of the EU to targets such as 60% of women in employment and a third of under-threes in formal childcare without ever once asking either the women or the children what they wanted.

It is not even true that providing childcare automatically pushes women into the workforce. Nor is it true that a lack of formal childcare provision is the major factor keeping them out.

The ERSI looked at this issue way back in 2000 and found that the relationship between the availability of childcare and women’s workforce participation was “subtle”.

It is not difficult to see the lack of a simple relationship, internationally, between childcare provision and women’s workforce participation.

The US massively outstrips most European countries for workforce participation of mothers despite the lack of state-funded formal childcare.

Portugal has traditionally had a high level of female workforce participation despite relatively poor state childcare provision, perhaps due to the availability of flexible, seasonal work.

Germany has good state childcare provision and low numbers of mothers in full-time work.

Austria has good state childcare but similarly, around half of Austrian working mothers are part-timers.

It is for this sin that Austria was censored by the all-powerful OECD research project published in 2005, Babies and Bosses.

It was argued that Austria’s three-year maternity leave and generous entitlements to all parents, whether they are at home or not, which includes a cash payment of approximately €175 per child to be spent on care as the parent desires, encouraged mothers to stay home.

Don’t you know how bad it is for children if one of their parents stays home with them, even part-time?

Well, it doesn’t look like Austria is doing too badly by its children, if the latest reputable child welfare survey, published by Unicef two years ago, is anything to go by.

Austria is placed fifth in the world, though other surveys place it first. And Ireland? That septic isle? Ireland comes seventh. By contrast, the UK is tied with Germany and Greece in 14th place.

Most of the countries in the top 10, including Finland and Norway, have good childcare services but most also have good supports for parents who wish to stay home themselves.

There is no research available anywhere in the world which says it is better for children to be reared by people other than their parents, except in very sad cases which we all understand.

There is significant research, including the largest ever childcare survey carried out in the UK, Families, Children and Childcare, which says kids are better off at home until they are three.

This same survey rated the care of a childminder or relations well above creche care and Irish parents have voted the same way with their feet.

Penelope Leach, who led this research, describes pre-school after the age of three as an “unequivocal benefit.”

I have always supported free preschool between the ages of three and five as a help to both parents and children, but if you’re up a mountain and it doesn’t suit you to bring your child, it doesn’t mean she’ll be breaking stones with her teeth for the rest of her life.

Our own National Economic and Social Council described the likely benefits of preschool for kids in good homes as “modest, if any.”

I follow the work of the Institute of European Affairs economist, Dan O’Brien, keenly, but when he waded into argument that Child Benefit should be cut to fund creches this week on RTÉ, he was up to his neck in muck.

“Nobody contests the evidence”, he said, that funding creches rather than parents is the way to go, and means “a huge payback in terms of their life outcomes”. It even means a lower crime rate, apparently.

Let me contest this evidence now, Mr O’Brien. It comes from the Perry Preschool Project which began in Chicago in the 1960s.

Chronically disadvantaged children were offered high-quality preschool education while their parents received multiple supports. The massive cash savings which were meant to accrue included a calculation as to the number of people who were not murdered.

This is important research but it is little or no relevance to today’s Ireland, particularly when you strip out the bit about supporting the parents.

Despite all this, I think it is a shame that Minister Regina Doherty rowed back so quickly this week on her intention to “look at” cutting Child Benefit for families earning over €100,000 to fund other services, particularly since she said she had not read the 2012 Mangan Report to her own department, which recommended such a move.

Mangan recommended a payment of €100 a month per child for higher earners, with top-ups directed to lower earners.

Speaking as someone who has coined it for 20 years — including the ludicrous one-and-a-half rate payment for twins — I believe that extra money going to those who don’t need it increases competition for resources.

Better-off families put more water between their kids and less well-off kids: the language course in France, the piano lessons, the maths grinds.

The saving, reckoned by Mangan at about €200m annually, should go back to parents — towards a basic full year’s paid maternity leave or towards Child Benefit for the 10,000 or so 19-year-olds who are still in school, a figure which will grow as the impact of the second preschool year is felt.

We have talked a lot about choice lately. The Government should not attempt to take away from parents the choice as to how they rear their kids.

There is significant research which says that kids are better off at home until they are three



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