Researchers from the Millennium Cohort Study are following nearly 19,000 children born at the start of the 21st century, building a picture of their birth and early childhood to try to gauge the long-term impact of these formative years.
The study, which will keep tracking the children until they reach the age of 11, presents an intimate portrait of family and community life in Britain, examining poverty, parenting, education, health, religion and ethnicity.
Led by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, it is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and government departments. Today’s results come from between 2006 and 2007, when the children were aged five.
The survey found that children whose parents read to them every day at the age of three were more likely to flourish in their first year in primary school, getting more than two months ahead not just in language and literacy but also in maths.
Their scores in the Foundation Stage Profile – the assessment at the end of the reception year in England – were even boosted in the areas of social, emotional, physical and creative development.
But children who watched television for three or more hours a day at the same age saw no significant decline in their scores. And teaching them to count or recite the alphabet at three did not make them do any better two years later.
Children who were read to on a daily basis were 2.4 months ahead of those whose parents never read to them in maths, and 2.8 months ahead in communication, language and literacy. The advantage was similar to the gain from attending nursery, said report author Kirstine Hansen. She called on the government to do more to encourage parents to read with their sons and daughters.
“It’s going to be easier and cheaper to do than try and upgrade parents’ education,” she said. “It’s going to be very hard to do anything about the fact that lots of people live in poverty or leave school without good results but there’s something we can do. It’s not going to fully compensate for other things but it’s going to help.”
Girls were consistently outperforming boys at the age of five, when they were nine months ahead in creative development – activities like drama, singing and dancing, and 4.2 months ahead in literacy. Older children in the year group tended to outscore younger classmates, and as other studies have shown, children with heavier birth weights had higher scores.
Children from lower-income families with parents who were less highly educated were less advanced in their development at age five. Living in social housing put them 3.2 months behind in maths and 3.5 months behind in literacy.
Those whose mothers had fewer qualifications than five A to Cs at GCSE trailed far behind those born to mothers with degrees: they lagged by 6.5 months in maths and 6.6 months in literacy.
The Foundation Stage Profile is not normally used in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but teachers in those countries produced similar one-off assessments for the MCS children so the study could cover the whole of the UK.
Hansen said although people tended to assume watching TV would have a negative effect on children, the researchers did not know what they were watching and some of it could be beneficial.
At the age of five, one in five of the MCS children were overweight, including 5% classified as obese. Girls were more likely to weigh too much: 23% of those in the group, compared with 19% of the boys.
Not breastfeeding and introducing children to solid foods before the age of four months also led to them being heavier. Of those who were breastfed for at least four months, 18% were overweight, compared with 23% of those who were bottlefed only. Some 24% of children introduced to solid foods at a very young age were overweight, while the figure for those who were not was only 20%.
Other factors associated with being overweight included living in a lower income family, having a less educated mother and lacking a father at home. Black children were far more likely to be overweight than those from other ethnic groups, according to the analysis of more than 12,000 five-year-olds. More than a third (36%) of black Caribbean and black African children were too heavy for their height, compared with 17% of Pakistani children and 21% of white children.
There were also national and regional variations. One in four MCS children in Northern Ireland was overweight, compared with 21% in England and Scotland.
Choice of school
The “fatalistic” attitudes of some parents means fewer than generally thought are seeing their children get into their true first choice of primary school, the researchers found. Although 94% of all families who applied for a state primary school place in England successfully got the school they chose on paper, in reality only 88% sent their child to the school they most wanted. Some may not be putting the school they really want for their child on the application form.
The findings also show that in England, mothers with a degree were less likely to get their first choice of school (88%) than those with fewer than five GCSEs at grade C or above (94%). This could reflect the fact that university-educated parents were more likely to choose a higher-performing school, the researchers said.
Expert view Babies need to play
The links between learning and children’s physical development are well established. If you cannot hold a pen when at school, you are going to be made out to be a failure, not just by your teacher but by yourself. That is going to have long-term implications for your progress. This has long been known, although I’ve not seen a statistical association like this [the Millennium Cohort Study] shown from nine months before.
We should be getting on with informing all parents about, for example, how children need to be helped to develop in their physical capabilities, because this has implications for their learning, but that information does not seem to be getting out there.
This non-attention to the physiological basis for learning happens where children are growing up in poverty but . Italso in middle-class homes, where some parents think it is enough to sit their children in front of an educational DVD. Babies need to explore their new environment and move about.
I don’t think more intervention and screening is the solution.We need to empower parents with more information about what they can do to help their babies, rather than professionalising the whole basis of childhood, which is what you do when you intervene early. We need to do a lot more in terms of providing guidance to parents before they have children, about children’s need to play and to interact with other people in those first years.
We should have a public information campaign, starting in antenatal clinics. In Toxic Childhood, I proposed introducing a course in child development into the secondary schools, so that everyone gets a good baseline understanding of this subject from a young age. We should follow that with advice at antenatal classes, when a child is about to start nursery, and when they are about to start school.
The gap between rich and poor seems to be growing, and we already have plenty of screening and intervention work with the under-fives. It does not appear to be working.
Sue Palmer is a child development expert and author of Toxic Childhood
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