Jennifer Buckingham argues 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.
• Numerous reports on child care produced in Australia over the last decade have made strong claims about immediate and ongoing positive effects of formal child care for all children, based on the findings of overseas early intervention projects.
• A more careful reading of the child care literature reveals that the findings of these studies cannot be generalised outside the specific context in which the programmes were conducted. The research base of many claims about child care does not support their weight.
• The most that can be said with any certainty is that children from disadvantaged families can benefit from high-quality child care, probably best delivered on a part-time basis. It is by no means clear that such advantages extend to the broader range of children, or to full-time formal child care for infants. Therefore, a case for increased public funding of universal child care cannot be based on these claims.
• The most common mistake is to confound centre-based care for infants with part-time preschool programmes for 3 and 4 year olds. They are very different forms of non-parental care and have very different effects.
• 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 within the broader population.
• 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.
• 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.