Press Releases

Parents think Northern Ireland is safest part of UK

11 June 2007

Northern Ireland is the safest and best part of the UK in which to bring up young children, a new study suggests.

EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:01HRS, JUNE 11, 2007

Northern Ireland is the safest and best part of the UK in which to bring up young children, a new study suggests.

That, at least, is the opinion of parents who took part in a research project that is tracking the development of children born between 2000 and 2002 in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

More than 15,000 parents of three-year olds in the UK-wide survey, the largest of its kind ever mounted, were asked whether their home area was a good one in which to bring up children. They were also asked how safe they felt in their neighbourhood.

More than 45 per cent of the 1,445 Northern Irish parents reported that their home district was excellent for children and only 4 per cent described it as poor or very poor. The equivalent percentages for England, where parents were least happy with their local area, were 32 and 8. 

Asked how secure they felt, almost 52 per cent of the Northern Irish parents replied “very safe” and 43 per cent said “fairly safe”. By contrast, only 37 per cent of parents in England felt very safe, while 51 per cent considered their family “fairly safe”.

The survey, which was carried out for the Millennium Cohort Study between 2003 and 2005, when the children were aged three, found that homes in Northern Ireland were the most calm. Welsh homes were least tranquil.

Northern Ireland also had the highest proportion of children (72 per cent) living with married, natural parents, and its three-year-olds displayed significantly fewer behavioural problems than youngsters in the rest of the UK.

However, the study confirmed that life was by no means idyllic for a minority of families. More mothers in Northern Ireland (11 per cent) were receiving treatment for depression than in any other UK country. 

The study, which is being conducted by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, also produced a mixed report on the educational development of three-year-olds in Northern Ireland. Although they had a better vocabulary than children in Wales and England, on average, they did less well than youngsters in the other UK countries on a “school readiness” assessment. This measured their understanding of colours, numbers, counting, letters, comparisons, sizes and shapes.

Professor Heather Joshi, director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, said: “Although children in Northern Ireland were below the UK average on school readiness they were about a month ahead of the average in terms of the development of their vocabulary. They came second to the Scots, but the vocabulary scores of the top 10 per cent in Northern Ireland were as good as the top 10 per cent in Scotland.”

Among the study’s other findings are that:

  • Mothers in Northern Ireland were least likely to say they enforced rules strictly, but they were most likely to say their children always had regular mealtimes.
  • Fourteen per cent of three-year-olds in Northern Ireland had three or more siblings, compared with only 6 per cent in Scotland.
  • Mothers in Northern Ireland were keener to instil religious values in their children than mothers in other UK countries. Eighty-five per cent of them considered religious values important, compared with just over half in England, Wales and Scotland.

Notes for editors:

1. The Centre for Longitudinal Studies is an Economic and Social Research Council Resource Centre based at the Institution of Education. The Centre houses three internationally-renowned birth cohort studies: the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study. The Millennium Cohort Study is co-funded by a number of government departments, including the Northern Ireland Executive.

2. The second sweep of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS2) collected information from 15,590 families of children born across the UK in 2000-2 when they reached the age of three. Almost all of these families (14,898) had been in the first survey when the children were nine-months-old. An additional 692 families were recruited for the second survey in England who had been eligible for the first survey but not included. The study’s first sweep, carried out during 2001-2, laid the foundations for this major new longitudinal research resource, involving a year-long cohort of around 19,000 babies. It recorded the circumstances of pregnancy and birth, the all-important early months of life, and the social and economic backgrounds of the families into which the children were born. The second survey data allow researchers for the first time to chart the changing circumstances of these children and their families and offer some direct measurements of the children’s development at the age of three which can be related to their earlier experiences. The sample was designed to provide adequate numbers from areas with high proportions of minority-ethnic residents (in England) and high child poverty, as well as the three smaller countries of the UK. The first survey covered 1,955 children in Northern Ireland, and the second, 1,491.

3. Three-year-olds who were assessed as part of MCS2 took the British Ability Scales (BAS) Naming Vocabulary subtest, which is part of a suite of cognitive tests designed for children aged between three and 17 years. The test is individually administered. The interviewer asks the child to name a series of pictures of everyday items. There are 36 items in total, although the number each child is asked about is dependent on their performance. The assessment is terminated if five successive items are answered incorrectly. BAS assesses the expressive language ability of children. It was not administered to children who do not speak English.

4. School readiness was assessed using six subtests of the Revised Bracken Basic Concept Scale, which measures children’s knowledge of those ‘readiness’ concepts that parents and teachers traditionally teach children in preparation for formal education. The test has been designed for children in the age range of two-and-a-half to seven years and 11 months. The six subtests comprise the assessment of children’s basic concepts such as colours, letters, numbers/counting, sizes, comparisons and shapes. This test is also individually administered. As a non-verbal test, requiring the child to point, but not speak, it could be given in oral translation to children who do not speak English. Both cognitive assessments were administered using Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing by interviewers who were specially trained but were not professional psychologists.

5. Mothers were asked questions (which have proved predictive of child development in other surveys) about the atmosphere of the home (‘disorganised’, ‘hearing yourself think’ or ‘calm’, each with five ordered categories). The answers form a scale which varies between zero (‘hectic’) and 12 (‘calm’).