Press Releases

Disadvantaged children up to a year behind by the age of three

11 June 2007

Many children from disadvantaged backgrounds are already up to a year behind more privileged youngsters educationally by the age of three, a UK-wide study has found.


Amended 23/07/2007

Many children from disadvantaged backgrounds are already up to a year behind more privileged youngsters educationally by the age of three, a UK-wide study has found.

Vocabulary scores achieved by more than 12,000 children revealed that the sons and daughters of graduates were 101 months ahead of those with the least-educated parents. A second “school readiness” assessment measuring understanding of colours, letters, numbers, sizes and shapes that was given to more than 11,500 three-year-olds found an even wider gap – 122 months – between the two groups. The equivalent gaps for children in families living above and below the poverty line used by the researchers were five3 months for vocabulary and 104 months for school readiness.

As expected, girls did better than boys on average. They were three months ahead on both measures. Less predictably, Scots children were three5 months ahead of the UK average in their language development and two months ahead in “school readiness”.

The assessments were conducted on behalf of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, which is based at the Institute of Education, University of London. They form part of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which is tracking more than 15,500 children born in 2000-2.

The assessments also highlighted marked ethnic differences. A quarter of the Black Caribbean and Black African children who took the school readiness assessment were delayed in their development, compared with only 4 per cent of White children. 

Bangladeshi and Pakistani three-year-olds recorded relatively low scores on both tests. Their vocabulary scores were, on average, well below those normally expected for two-and-a-half-year olds, even though non-English speakers were not included in the assessments. Bangladeshi children’s school readiness scores were about a year behind those of White youngsters and Pakistani children did only slightly better.

Dr Kirstine Hansen, research director of the MCS, emphasised, however, that the assessments might not be a fair indicator of minority ethnic children’s current or future ability. “Before drawing firm conclusions we will need to investigate the circumstances in which the assessments were done, allowing for whether children lived in homes where English was not the main language spoken. There may also be cultural differences in children’s readiness to attempt such tasks or engage with an unfamiliar visitor. However, it is fair to comment that teachers need to be aware that many – but by no means all -- Bangladeshi and Pakistani children may do poorly on similar assessments.”

Further analysis of the data, carried out after this press release was issued, has caused us to revise some of these statistics. The correct figures are:
1 12 months
2 13 months
3 8 months
4 9 months
5 2 months

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.

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 each country in the UK.

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. Up to 15 per cent of an ability range can be classified as “delayed”. 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. The poverty threshold used in the Millennium Cohort Study was 60 per cent of national median net income before housing costs. This resembles the conventional relative poverty line used in the government’s Households Below Average Income series but does not reproduce this measure exactly. Our measure of equivalised family income gives greater weight to the costs of young children and is based on family rather than household income (the latter could include the income of other adults in the household).