Margaret O'Brien (left), whose research the BBC used to argue that the children of working mothers suffered educationally, advises academics to be wary when dealing with the media.
Last week, to my dismay, I found my research at the centre of a media storm that portrayed working mothers as neglecting their children's education. The trigger was the inclusion of some of my findings from the research project, "Young people and family life in Barking and Dagenham", on which I had already published, in BBC1's Panorama programme "Missing mum". The research was based on the accounts of family life of 600 children, average age 14, and interviews with some of their relatives.
Although the area has undergone significant changes since the 1950s, the continuities are striking: manual work for men still predominates, kin contact remains high and the ethnic profile is still mainly white. There is a residual reliance on "getting by", "hard graft" and a questioning of the value of formal qualifications among the parents and grandparents, particularly among men. By contrast the children had high educational aspirations: many wanted to "better" themselves.
As the study progressed we became more interested in the legacy of educational underachievement in the borough and the links between family cultures. We found that many children did not achieve the results that would allow them to progress to the career of their choice. Only 38 per cent achieved five or more GCSEs grade A-C, lower than the national average for England (44.5 per cent). Moreover, 22 per cent of the sample achieved no passes, the national figure is 8 per cent. Boys were significantly more likely than girls to emerge with no passes.
Journalists from Panorama contacted me last November. They had read a paper we had written on the place of fathers in this community. We compared the three most common parental employment types (a dual worker family with mother working either part-time or full-time and the more traditional household where mothers were not in paid employment) and found significant differences between the groups. All these households had fathers in full-time work.
We found that children were less likely to get no passes when one parent was working part-time (in this sample the mother) - 11 per cent of children in contrast to 25 per cent in the dual worker full-time group. More children in households where mothers worked part-time achieved five or more GCSE's grade A-C in comparison to the full-time working group (49 per cent vs 33 per cent). It was also striking that outcomes for boys from the dual worker full-time group were significantly worse than for girls; a pattern not found for households where mothers worked part-time.
While media interest focused on the different outcomes for children living with either full-time or part-time working mothers, the finding that children with mothers who did not work achieved the poorest educational outcomes of all was overlooked (36 per cent of these children emerged with no passes at GCSE).
While it was the case that fewer parents in this group had post-school education themselves, this last finding points to the complex issues involved. Maternal employment should not be considered in isolation from other local and national factors. Moreover, one cannot overlook the role of the father.
However, mothers did emerge as the more emotionally salient parent. Children reported turning to their mothers more often than their fathers for personal troubles and indeed homework. Full-time working mothers were used less in this way and there were more accounts of children finding them less understanding.
In the process of making the programme the Panorama team began to focus on mothers. While the programme has been criticised by many for its "spin" on mothers, it is still the case that women rather than men feel the greater impact of balancing family and work - not least because they have tended to continue taking more responsibility for children than men. In turn their absences are bound to be more noticed, not least by children.
Clearly the issue is complicated. While academic research practices usually try to display complexity, media practices tend to be more reductionist. Panorama's press release, "Children of working mums fail to make the grade", issued on Sunday, the day before transmission, illustrated the problem. By lunchtime Monday there were over 35 calls. On Tuesday, amid extensive coverage, a Sun journalist phoned my office enquiring about my children's daycare. By Thursday the University of North London press officer had taken 55 media inquiries.
Despite its angle the issues raised by the programme are important ones. Many working parents and their children feel unhappy about not spending enough time together.
In any future programme I will enable our press officer to prepare a press release in advance. And, on reflection, it might have been wiser to have published these specific findings to an academic audience first before any wider dissemination.
Margaret O'Brien is professor of family studies, faculty of environmental and social studies, University of North London.