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Ethnic minority children read at least as well as white pupils by age 7, study finds

15 October 2010

White children are losing their early lead over ethnic minority youngsters in English language during the first two years of primary school, a UK-wide study has found.

White children are losing their early lead over ethnic minority youngsters in English language during the first two years of primary school, a UK-wide study has found.


By age 7, ethnic minority children read English at least as well as white pupils, say researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London.

The best readers, on average, are Indian children who are significantly ahead of white pupils by the second year of primary school even though they had a poorer vocabulary at age 5.

These findings have emerged from the Millennium Cohort Study, which is tracking the development of children born between 2000 and 2002. As part of its latest survey, more than 13,500 children were shown words on cards and asked to read them out. This assessment showed that Indian pupils were 7 per cent ahead of white children in reading at age 7. It also revealed that Pakistani and Bangladeshi children, who had the lowest vocabulary scores at age 5, had caught up with their white classmates, as had black and mixed-race children.

"These are remarkable findings," say the researchers who analysed the results, Professor Ingrid Schoon and Dr Elizabeth Jones. "At the age 5 survey white children scored the highest in the naming vocabulary assessment and the other ethnic groups were significantly behind."

The survey, which was conducted in 2008/9, also found that only 56 per cent of white children said they enjoyed reading "a lot". Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils were the keenest readers (68% liking it a lot), followed by black (62%) and Indian (59%) children.

However, Professor Schoon and Dr Jones say it is difficult to determine why ethnic minority children have caught up with their white classmates. "It could be due to actual changes in verbal ability, perhaps due to experience of schooling, or to the two assessments measuring different skills, or differences in parental support for reading, or all of these."

White children did, however, outscore ethnic minority youngsters in a second test of non-verbal reasoning and spatial visualisation which required them to construct patterns using flat squares or solid cubes. Pakistani and Bangladeshi youngsters did least well in this assessment, at age 5 and age 7.

Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black children in the Millennium cohort also did less well than other ethnic groups in a maths assessment covering numbers, shape, space, measures and data handling. Children from these family backgrounds consequently had a slightly lower overall ability score than other ethnic groups. However, the researchers point out that the gaps between ethnic groups were smaller than at age 5.

Girls scored higher than boys in both the word reading and pattern construction assessments at age 7 but the gender difference in maths scores was insignificant.

The study also showed that seven-year-olds living with parents who are well-educated, have a professional job, or are living above the poverty line, did significantly better in all the cognitive assessments than children from less advantaged backgrounds. The same pattern was identified in previous MCS surveys.

The findings appear in a report published today by the Institute of Education’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies: Millennium Cohort Study, Fourth Survey: A User's Guide to Initial Findings. Copies of the report can be downloaded from www.cls.ioe.ac.uk/MCSFindings (from 10am on Friday, October 15).  

Further information from:

David Budge

(off) 020 7911 5349

(mob) 07811 415362

 Notes for editors

  1.  The Millennium Cohort Study has been tracking the Millennium children through their early childhood and plans to follow them into adulthood. It covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income; housing; and neighbourhood. It is the first of the nationwide cohort studies to over-sample areas with high densities of ethnic minorities and large numbers of disadvantaged families. Previous surveys of the cohort were carried out when the children were aged nine months, three years and five years. The study is housed at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education. It was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of government departments.
  2. Data from the fieldwork for the fourth survey of the Millennium cohort are now available from the UK Data Archive www.esds.ac.uk.
  3. The contract for data collection in MCS is awarded under competitive tender to specialist agencies. For three of the four surveys undertaken to date the data collection was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, who in turn sub-contracted the interviewing in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. The agency responsible for the second round of data collection was Gfk-NOP, who sub-contracted in Northern Ireland to Millward Brown.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports more than 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  5. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its "high quality" initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students "to want to be outstanding teachers". The IOE is a member of the 1994 group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.  

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