This report examines changes in cognitive ability between the ages of 3 (34 months) and 5 (58 months) years amongst children with different social background characteristics and seeks to identify which circumstances and experiences contribute to the relative improvement of cognitive ability of children in lower (and higher) socio-economic groups in the pre-school period. In so doing, the report aims to identify factors which policy could usefully affect in order to maximise children's cognitive ability ahead of entering school and help to narrow the considerable difference in ability between children from more and less advantaged circumstances.
The report aims to answer a number of distinct research questions:
- Does the gap in cognitive ability between children with different social background characteristics change between ages 3 and 5?
- Which factors help or hinder improvement in cognitive ability between ages 3 and 5?
- Are the factors which influence improvements in cognitive ability during the pre-school period different for children whose parents have lower levels of educational qualifications and those whose parents have higher level qualifications?
Examining the gap in cognitive ability
- Children from higher income households, those whose parents have higher educational qualifications, and those with higher socio-economic classifications, have better vocabulary and problem solving scores, on average, at both ages than children whose parents have lower incomes, lower educational qualifications and are in lower socio-economic classifications.
- The largest differences in ability are between children whose parents have higher and lower educational qualifications. At age 5, compared with children whose parents have no qualifications, those with a degree-educated parent are around 18 months ahead on vocabulary and 13 months ahead on problem solving ability.
- The difference in vocabulary ability between children in the lowest and highest income groups reduced slightly between ages 3 and 5. The difference by social class did not change. The gap in vocabulary ability between those children in the lower and upper education groups widened in the pre-school period.
- The gap in problem solving ability by parental education and social class narrowed whilst differences in problem solving ability by income level widened.
- Of the three social background characteristics considered, parental level of education was most strongly associated with change in cognitive ability between ages 3 and 5. Children whose parents had higher qualifications were more likely to see their ability improve, relative to their peers, compared with those whose parents had no qualifications.
- A parent's lack of educational qualifications appears to have a continuing detrimental effect on children's vocabulary ability during the pre-school years. Children whose parents have lower qualifications have lower ability at age 3, and they are less likely to see an improvement in their ability during the pre-school period. This means that these children, who are already at a disadvantage, fall further behind their peers ahead of their entry to school. Other research suggests that those children who are developmentally behind at school entry will continue to stay behind.
Factors which help or hinder improvement
- Compared with children whose parents are degree-educated, those whose parents have no qualifications are more likely, amongst other things, to have younger mothers, live in lone parent families, experience lower levels of home learning activities and household rules, had a low birth weight, poorer general health, and a mother who smokes.
- Due to these characteristics also being associated with cognitive ability, some of these differences in circumstances and experiences of children from different educational backgrounds explain some of the education-related gaps in their cognitive ability.
Changes in vocabulary ability during the pre-school period were found to be more strongly related to aspects of the child's home environment and the choices and behaviours of parents (such as frequency of reading to the child, and level of infant-maternal attachment), than external influencing factors such as pre-school education.
- After controlling for parental education level, greater consistency of parenting, stronger parent-child attachment, attendance at ante-natal classes and breastfeeding were each independently associated with a relative improvement in vocabulary ability in the pre-school years.
- Early language development is also important - those children who display better communicative skills at an earlier stage are more likely to see their skills improve during the pre-school period. It would appear generally beneficial therefore, to seek to improve children's communication ability from the very earliest stages and establish better skills earlier in order to ensure continued positive language development.
Changes in problem solving ability during the pre-school period are related to parenting, the home environment and external factors like the type of pre-school the child attended.
- A higher frequency of home learning activities and being breastfed were each independently associated with a relative improvement in problem solving ability. External factors were also associated with changes in this ability.
- Attending a private nursery school for pre-school education and having some experience of primary school were both associated with positive development whereas not attending pre-school and living in an area in the most deprived quintile were associated with a relative decline in ability.
These factors present a complex picture of the numerous elements of children's lives which, taken together, can influence their cognitive development. Influencing just one factor is unlikely to generate any change in children's ability.
Were the effects different according to parental level of education?
Analysis was undertaken to examine whether the factors associated with change in ability identified above had different effects for children from lower educated households and those in higher educated households.
- Lack of educational qualifications amongst younger mothers appears to be of less significance than a lack of qualifications amongst older mothers in respect of change in relative language ability. Rather than 'doubling' the negative effect, having a younger mother in the low qualifications group appeared to cancel out some of the negative impact of the lack of qualifications.
- The positive impact of infant-maternal attachment on improvement in relative language ability was specific to children whose parents have lower qualifications. This implies that the overall negative effect on cognitive development associated with a lack of parental qualifications can be limited somewhat by improving early infant-maternal attachment.
- The positive relationship between early communication skills and relative improvement in vocabulary between ages 3 and 5 was more pronounced for children whose parents had no or lower qualifications. Thus, children from less educated backgrounds whose relative vocabulary ability improves in the pre-school period are those who were already demonstrating more advanced communication skills at an earlier age. For children whose parents have no or lower qualifications, poor early communication skills will likely persist through the pre-school period with little or no relative improvement. In contrast, a lack of advanced early communication skills does not appear to necessarily prohibit later improvement in vocabulary for children in families where parents have higher qualifications.
- The positive effect of attendance at ante-natal classes on relative improvement of vocabulary applied equally to children in all educational groups. Thus ante-natal classes appear to have a 'universal' positive effect. However, it is possible that attendance at ante-natal classes is measuring characteristics associated with a desire to be a good parent which are also beneficial to the improvement of vocabulary ability in the pre-school period. Thus, simply improving attendance at ante-natal classes alone is not likely to lead to improved cognitive ability.
Problem solving ability
- Experiencing a higher frequency of parent-child activities such as reading, drawing, and singing nursery rhymes at the ages of 2 and 3 has more benefit in respect of the relative improvement of problem solving ability for children whose parents have lower qualifications than for those who had higher qualifications. Increasing such activity for children from less educated backgrounds may therefore help to reduce the ability gap.
- None of the remaining factors associated with change in problem solving ability - attending a private pre-school, starting primary school, being breastfed and living in an area in the most deprived quintile - showed different effects for children in lower and higher educational groups.
The level of parents' educational qualifications is both a driver of overall changes in child cognitive ability at age 3 and age 5, and of change in cognitive ability for individual children in the pre-school period. However, some of these differences are accounted for by variations in other aspects of the lives of children from lower and higher educational groups. The findings suggest that by influencing some of these other factors, the education gaps in cognitive ability may be somewhat reduced.
The factors which showed some potential in this respect were associated with aspects of the child's home environment and the choices and behaviours of their parents - factors which are traditionally more difficult for policy to affect than more external, service-based influences such as pre-school and primary school education. However, external influences were not absent from the findings - both pre-school and early primary school experiences were shown to have some positive impact on problem solving ability. It is unclear which particular characteristics of privately-provided pre-school education generate this effect. The importance of good early development is also key with success in early communicative development proving important for later positive development. This confirms the importance of supporting and facilitating good development from the earliest possible stages of children's lives.
The factors that mattered for supporting child development were different for parents with lower and parents with higher educational qualifications. This suggests that universal policies which seek to improve children's cognitive ability and school readiness in the pre-school period will not benefit all children equally.
The mix of family and institution effects for lower and higher educated parents suggests that any strategies aimed at improving school readiness via the pre-school setting will require, for more disadvantaged children, a parallel strand which seeks to influence the child's home environment and parenting experiences. This confirms findings from Geddes et al (2010) who, in their review of interventions designed to improve school readiness, found that the most successful interventions utilised a mixed (centre and home-based), two generation (child and parents) approach. To ensure that children's cognitive ability is maximised in the pre-school period, our findings suggest that, in the home, such strategies should focus on the quality of the parent-child relationship and the frequency of home learning activities.
This report presents a complex picture of the numerous elements of children's lives which, taken together, can influence their cognitive development. Influencing just one factor is unlikely to generate any change in children's ability. Thus any policy must recognise the multi-faceted nature of factors which impact on children's development and seek to address improvements in each of those areas in order to close the ability gap. By improving children's cognitive ability ahead of their entry to primary school, there is a greater likelihood that they will achieve better educational and employment outcomes over the longer term.