CareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy considers the findings of the recent DFE-commissioned study from the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre:

The research aimed to identify the family stress factors and parental behaviours that were associated with worse children’s outcomes at age 7 and those family factors and parental behaviours that helped children to succeed. It also set out to identify whether stressful life events experienced at different periods of childhood were associated with worse outcomes in adolescence.

A range of children’s outcomes were examined, during the study, using data from the Millennium Cohort Study and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.

The first of these is a large-scale cohort study of children being followed up over time, which provides wide information on children’s backgrounds and on a range of outcomes. The second is a study of children born in the Avon area in the early 1990’s. The children have been surveyed year on year, and their health and development has been tracked in great detail since that initial recruitment.

The outcomes examined in the study, were: at age 7, verbal cognitive skills, non-verbal skills, maths skills, Key Stage 1 attainment and behavioural difficulties; and for teenagers: Key Stage 3 attainment; emotional, behavioural, social, and school wellbeing; and Key Stage 4 results at age 16.

The information above provides only a snapshot of the methods and outcomes analysis deployed in the study, but it is clear that the areas examined have a leaning towards educational attainment.

That is not to say that those indicators do not provide an insight into wider development and outcomes, but they are only part of the picture.

It’s also worth noting, that, as far as I can see, most of the non-educational indicators are derived from parents’ responses of one sort or another. Again, this, in no sense invalidates the associations identified, but it I think it’s worth bearing in mind when reading the conclusions. And you may find, on closer reading that other independent measures were used – it’s just that I can’t find immediate reference to them.

So, with this background (and comments) in mind, what are some of the key findings, from the research analysis?
• The study found that it’s broadly the same range of factors that influence outcomes at age 7, as are relevant at earlier stages
• Two things were consistently associated with poorer outcomes (all 5) at age 7: experience of poverty, and child disability
• One thing was consistently associated with better outcomes at age 7: higher maternal qualifications
• The study notes that different outcomes appear to be affected by different variables
• And that the effects of experience on emotional wellbeing are more difficult to quantify
• The study points to the importance of children’s resilience in mitigating the effect of childhood experience
• Sadly, it suggests that there is little evidence to imply that effective parenting has more impact on disadvantaged families (ie: that it can overcome other difficulties)
• The study notes that some poorer outcomes at age 7 are associated with larger numbers of siblings – but this does not apply to the behaviour measure
• More television viewing was seen to be negatively associated with verbal ability scores at age 7; and maternal depression was associated with more behavioural difficulties – as was lone parent status for mothers
• Bigger houses were found to have a positive association with all 3 measures of cognitive ability at age 7
• Parental reading with children was found to have a positive association with verbal skills
• The study found mixed associations for the impact of stressful events on outcomes for adolescents. These included different types of event – being associated with different outcomes – and different outcomes being affected by the age at which the child experienced the stressful event

I think, in many ways the study confirms much that has already been assumed. But having such findings confirmed is useful – particularly as next-stage policy decisions are taken.

And, on that, I’m not sure that this analysis will give much comfort to politicians in DFE. I think it confirms, once again, that the most effective route to improving overall childhood outcomes is to lift more families out of poverty; to improve the educational attainment of young women; and to provide more effective support to children with disabilities. Schemes to mitigate the effects of these wider factors may have an impact, but judged on these findings, they fall some way behind the need to tackle the big issues…

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