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Research shows stark inequalities for pre-school kids

New research shows that the children of the poorest families are 7 to 8 times more likely to exhibit serious social and emotional problems than their wealthy peers. The research also shows that the gap in children’s verbal (speaking/vocabulary) skills widens by 50% between the ages of three and five, the two age groups being looked at by the research team.

The study, the first to make use of only recently available data to look at inequality in pre-school children, is published today (June 13) in Archives of Disease in Childhood. The research team from ISER and University College, London, say the study is also one of the first to “chart the magnitude of inequalities in the pre-school years occurring in the UK today”.

The research, funded by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, used data from the Millennium Cohort Study to look at the impact of home environment, from reading to children to family routines, and found that although these factors play a role in contributing to inequalities, it by no means represents the complete solution to the issue.

Explaining the background to the research, Professor Yvonne Kelly from ISER said:

“We have known for some time that there are clear links between early child development and a wide range of later adult outcomes and there have been numerous efforts to implement early intervention policies to tackle this. But no one has really been able to look closely at the size of the inequalities or to examine just how much effect the home environment really has on children of this age.”

The main findings from the research were:

  • Children in the highest income group were 7 times less likely to have clinically-relevant socio-emotional problems at age 3, and the size of this gap increased by age 5
  • In verbal abilities there was a 6 point difference between rich and poor children aged 3 and a 9 point difference aged 5 – a 50% increase
  • Home environmental factors e.g. reading to children, family routines and mother’s mental health accounted for about half of the gap

One policy relevant finding was that, holding all other factors constant, reading to children daily could reduce the number of 3 and 5 year-olds with socio-emotional problems by 20%. But the researchers point out that home environment only really accounts for half of the gap, with children from poorer backgrounds still four times more likely to have serious socio-emotional difficulties than children from the highest income group.

Professor Kelly added:

“It would be easy to say that a loving, stable, warm environment where children are read to daily and played with all the time is the answer to inequality, but this study shows quite clearly that there is still an enormous gap that is unaccounted for. If you are a parent working long unsocial hours for very little money and are living in poor quality accommodation, you are hardly in the best position to create the optimal environment in which our children can flourish.”

Notes to Editors

The 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 2010/11 is £128 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at: www.esrc.ac.uk