I somehow neglected to write a post on Jennifer Buckingham’s new CIS childcare report when it came out last week.* The report surveys the evidence on child care, and concludes that we have very little high-quality evidence on whether formal childcare is good or bad for kids. Much more articulately than my recent ramblings on the topic, Jen points out that the really robust evidence relates to randomised trials of early intervention programs for very poor kids, but it would be silly to extrapolate from those to regular childcare.
â€¢ American studies regularly cited to support the argument that child care is widely beneficial include the High Scope Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian Project, Project CARE, Head Start and Early Head Start. Each of these studies involved children from low-income or disadvantaged families, who were given a combination of centre-based child care and home visits and, in some cases, health and parenting services. The results achieved were significant but they cannot be expected to be replicated with the broader population.
â€¢ Studies that have involved a more representative population provide a less conclusive and more cautionary picture of the effects of child care. Some, including the US National Institutes of Child Health and Development (NICHD) study, have found risks associated with early child care. Australian research is relatively scarce but is equally mixed, and the effect sizes have also been relatively small. Much research has focused on the quality of child care and has concluded, unsurprisingly, that high-quality child care is better than low-quality child care, but has not shown that any quality of child care is superior to parental care.
â€¢ This paper concludes that there is insufficient evidence to believe that, in general, even high-quality formal child care in the early years is either beneficial or harmful to children in the long term. The oft-claimed developmental, social and economic impacts are by no means guaranteed.
These findings accord with one of the nicest economics papers on the topic – Janet Currie’s 2001 JEP paper, which stated:
These findings suggest that the payoff to early intervention is greatest for the most disadvantaged children.
The available evidence sheds less light on the wisdom of establishing a universal public preschool program. Such a program would be costly and would provide a large child care subsidy to many middle- and upper-income families, rather than targeting benefits primarily towards the neediest children. However, such a program might enjoy greater popular support than one targeted only to needy children.
* Disclosure: I commented on a draft of Jen’s report.