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More than one in four UK children facing multiple risks to development, study finds

7 February 2012

More than one in four UK youngsters are growing up in families facing multiple challenges such as parental depression and financial hardship that can have a damaging effect on children’s development, new research suggests.


The study from the Institute of Education, University of London, sheds fresh light on the number and diverse combinations of difficulties that young children have been exposed to during the first decade of the 21st century. It also provides the first detailed analysis of the number of challenges or ‘risk factors’ facing children from different ethnic groups.

The 10 risk factors considered were: living in overcrowded housing; having a teenage mother; having one or more parents with depression, a physical disability, or low basic skills; substance misuse; excessive alcohol intake; living in a family experiencing financial stress, worklessness or domestic violence.

The paper’s authors, Dr Ricardo Sabates and Professor Shirley Dex, examined information on more than 18,000 families with young children who are taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study. They found that 28 per cent of families faced two or more of these ten risk factors.

Just over four in ten children did not experience any of these risk factors in early childhood. A further three in ten faced only one. Previous research suggests that most children living with only one risk factor will not end up with a major developmental problem. It is multiple family difficulties that are most damaging.

The study’s authors also discovered that Bangladeshi children were most likely to be exposed to multiple family difficulties. Almost half of them (48 per cent) experienced two or more risk factors – financial hardship was often one of them -- compared to only 20 per cent of Indian children.

As the Millennium cohort is representative of the current UK child population, the researchers estimate that approximately 192,000 children born in 2001 faced multiple challenges in early childhood. However, as many of these young children have older siblings, the total number of children at risk was considerably higher, they say.

The paper’s authors found that Millennium cohort children facing two or more risk factors had poorer behavioural development scores at ages three and five than those experiencing one or no challenges. The vocabulary scores of children with multiple challenges were also lower and they fell further behind between ages 3 and 5. Children in families with not only multiple risk factors but also low income fared worst across most developmental outcomes.

Dr Sabates, of the University of Sussex, and Professor Dex, of the Institute of Education, say that high numbers of risks are relatively uncommon: about one in seven children faced two risk factors, and one in fourteen was in a family with three risk factors. Less than 2 per cent of children were exposed to five or more.

The researchers found no dominant pattern of risks. For example, for families facing three risks, the most common combination was smoking during pregnancy, financial stress and teenage motherhood. However, this combination of factors applied to only 6 per cent of families living with three risks. Parental depression was the most prevalent factor overall.

The paper’s authors acknowledge that the great diversity of risk-factor combinations complicates matters for policy-makers. “It seems that there is relatively little to be gained from policy interventions that tackle clusters of disadvantage rather than individual disadvantages,” they conclude. “However, there may still be some knock-on effects from tackling some individual risk factors and disadvantages.”
The initial findings of this study are reported in “Multiple risk factors in young children’s development”, a working paper published by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), Institute of Education. The Millennium Cohort Study is managed by CLS, which is an Economic and Social Research Council Resource Centre.

Further information

David Budge
Institute of Education
University of London
020 7911 5349
07881 415362

Notes for editors

  1. Indian families were most likely to be free of any risk factors, with 47.6 per cent of families facing no risks, followed by 41.3 per cent of white families. Almost half (48 per cent) of Bangladeshi families with very young children faced two or more risks, followed by Pakistani families (34.4 per cent), other mixed (32.9 per cent), black African (31.4 per cent), black Caribbean (29.2 per cent), white (27.8 per cent) and Indian (20.4 per cent).
  2. No black Caribbean families involved in the Millennium Cohort Study faced five or more risks. No Indian families faced six or more, and no black African families experienced seven or more. However, the MCS sample sizes for some minority ethnic groups, for example black Caribbean families, may still be too small to provide robust estimates for risks with the smallest prevalence rates. The figures should be regarded, therefore, as the minimum rates of multiple risks for the minority ethnic groups examined.
  3. Children’s cognitive development at ages three and five was measured by the naming vocabulary subtest of the British Ability Scales. Behavioural development was gauged by the Goodman’s Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire completed by parents when the child was three and five years of age. The scale identifies five dimensions of behavioural development: emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity, peer problems and prosocial behaviours.
  4. The Millennium Cohort Study has been tracking children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland 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. Surveys of the cohort have been carried out at the ages of nine months, and three, five and seven years. The Millennium Cohort Study was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of government departments.
  5. 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 total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at
  6. 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 Institute's research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was 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.