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Prolonged paid parental leave and the opportunity it provides for mothers to spend more time with their offspring can have long lasting effects on children’s cognitive development and educational outcomes, according to new research.
The study, published in the Economic Journal, finds the size and direction of the effect depend strongly on mothers’ background and whether their children are boys or girls.
Analysing the impact of an Austrian reform that extended paid parental leave from one to two years, the study finds that the children (and particularly the sons) of highly educated mothers benefited significantly in terms of their later test scores at school. But the educational outcomes of children of mothers with lower educational attainment seem to have been harmed.
The researchers, Natalia Danzer from the Ifo Institute and Victor Lavy from the University of Warwick, looks at the impact of an Austrian reform which extended the maximum duration of paid and job-protected parental leave for working mothers from one to two years on children’s educational development.
Despite the longer parental leave, mothers did not experience any detriment to their medium- or long-run employment and earnings.
To assess the effect of this 12-month parental leave extension on the cognitive skills of affected children, the study analyses Austrian data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA collects standardised test scores in mathematics, reading and scientific literacy for a representative sample of students at age 15.
Comparing the standardised test scores of children born under the prolonged parental leave regime with those of children whose mothers had to return to work within 12 months, the research reveals that on average, the effect of the parental leave extension on test scores is close to zero and statistically insignificant. But while the test scores of the children (especially the son) of highly educated mothers improved significantly following the parental leave extension, the schooling outcomes of children of mothers with lower educational attainment seem to have been harmed.