New report reveals the power of cohort studies

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Opinion

The new report ‘Greater Expectations: Raising expectations for our children’ published by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) today is a fitting tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the NCB. It highlights the effects on children of the huge increase in relative poverty that has taken place over the last half century in Britain.

Its findings are based on a comparison of evidence about children growing up in the UK today to findings from the 11 year old sweep of the National Child Development Study (NCDS) that was collected and analysed under the auspices the NCB in 1969[1],[2].

NCDS was one of the first studies of its kind to be able to highlight the differences in the lives of children growing up in ‘ordinary’ compared to ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds that existed at that time, painting a stark picture of the ‘massive accumulation of burdens afflicting disadvantaged children and their families’. For example:

  • One in six (18 per cent) lived in over-crowded housing at age seven or eleven
  • One in eleven (9 per cent) lacked exclusive use of a hot water supply at age seven or eleven, and basic amenities such as an inside toilet
  • One in seven (14%) lived in families with low income and received free school meals or supplementary benefit.

Living standards have risen greatly in real terms over the last 50 years – and the number of children growing up experiencing the stark levels of absolute poverty of the kind highlighted above have undoubtedly declined – though by no means disappeared[3]. However the report rightly focusses on the impact of the huge increase in inequality that took place – mainly over the 1980s and early 1990s – that transformed Britain from a relatively equal society fifty years ago, to now one of the most unequal among developed nations.

The new report highlights the enduring difficulties caused by childhood poverty, and some of the unique problems faced by children today compared to in the past.

For me, the report also highlights the enduring power of the cohort studies. It is thanks to the detailed and multi-disciplinary nature of NCDS that it was able to paint such a comprehensive picture of growing up in disadvantage nearly fifty years ago, and which provides an enduring benchmark for comparisons to children’s lives today. More than this, the longitudinal nature of the study allows us to understand more about the hugely negative consequences of this childhood poverty and disadvantage on so many aspects of cohort members’ lives as adults.

The age 55 survey that is due to begin in the next week will undoubtedly reveal that this long shadow from childhood continues as the study members progress through middle age. The new sweep is also likely to further our understanding of the factors that promote resilience and help people to turn around their lives from difficult beginnings.

Meanwhile, the Millennium Cohort Study, is preparing to release the first set of data on over 13,000 children across the UK, from its own age 11 survey later this year. By conducting analysis of data from more than one cohort we can understand more about the life chances of different generations and how social conditions and the policy context help shape individual lives.

Notes
[1] NCDS started as the Perinatal Mortality Survey in 1958, sponsored by the National Birthday Trust Fund. The National Children’s Bureau then carried out four follow-up surveys in 1965, 1969, 1974 and 1981. The Social Statistics Research Unit at City University carried out the sixth survey in 1991. In 1998, NCDS was transferred to the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) at the Institute of Education. CLS has carried out three further surveys, in 1999-2000, 2004 and 2008, and is about to start the 2013 survey.
[2] ‘Greater Expectations’ compares children’s lives today with findings from a report that NCB published on child poverty in 1973, Born to Fail, which was based on NCDS data.
[3] According to official low income statistics nearly a million children today live below the 1969 poverty line expressed in absolute terms (defined as 60% of the median After-Housing-Costs (AHC) income, which in 1969 was around £125 per week for a couple with no children in 2011-12 prices), although it is notoriously difficult to measure the very lowest incomes accurately. Calculations based on Institute for Fiscal Studies data.

Alissa Goodman is Principal Investigator of the National Child Development Study at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education.