• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 04th January, 2011

Taking the Longview

Today, Prevention Action introduces Britain’s five birth cohort studies and focus upon the contributions made to our understanding of child development. Tomorrow, Prevention Action will examine how these insights have influenced policy.Britain has a long history of conducting large-scale studies following children from birth into adulthood and then into old age. Michael Wadsworth and John Bynner are in a unique position to reflect upon the contribution of such studies to policy and our understanding of child development. Wadsworth, who addressed the December meeting of the Centre for Social Policy at Dartington Hall, was previously the director of the first of these large studies in the UK, which began tracing babies born in one week of 1946. He is now chairman of trustees at Longview, a charity which promotes longitudinal research. Bynner was previously director of the 1958 and 1970 studies and is also a former director of Longview. Wadsworth and Bynner introduced the five major birth cohort studies currently taking place in Britain. The first, the National Study of Health and Development, began shortly after the end of the Second World War in 1946. Over 5,000 children were followed and, at regular intervals, their health and development were monitored. At the most recent period of data collection, these individuals were 64 years of age. Since this seminal study, four larger and increasingly sophisticated studies have begun: the National Child Development study in 1958; the British Cohort Study of 1970; the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in 1991; and, most recently, the Millennium Cohort study which started following nearly 19,000 babies born at the turn of the century. For Wadsworth and Bynner, the contribution that such studies have made to our understanding of child development is clear. “Birth cohort studies have helped us identify critical periods for children’s health development,” argues Wadsworth. “For example, the 1946 and 1958 studies highlighted specific periods in development where physical and brain growth are paramount.” Only by the repeated observation and measurement of the same individuals or households over a period of time [a longview are we able to understand just how important early development is for later life chances.Furthermore, only by conducting longitudinal studies are we able to understand how economic, family and social circumstances, and adversity alter the course of children’s lives. As Bynner says, “Longitudinal studies provide the timeline allowing us to understand how circumstances or experiences at one point in time - be this within an individual’s life or a period of time in society - are directly related to later outcomes.” Some risks to health and development which are now considered common sense - smoking or drinking alcohol during pregnancy, for example - required just such research to see how the consequences of such risks and altered subsequent development. Longitudinal studies also allow us to observe the pernicious effects of social and economic inequalities at various points in time. Shocking disparities in mortality, health and educational opportunities have been illuminated and, as discussed tomorrow, used as a lever to change policy. Bynner also reflects that advances in recent decades in the measurement of an individual’s physiology and genotype have allowed us to understand better how risks cluster and interact. Longitudinal studies measuring these physiological and genetic indices have allowed us to recognise, for example, how stress or poor economic circumstance become entrenched and affect life chances.So for Wadsworth and Bynner, Britain’s five birth cohort studies have played an immeasurable role in our understanding of child development: teaching us about critical periods of development, identifying risks to children’s subsequent health and development and beginning to show us how these cluster and interact. • Tomorrow Prevention Action reflects how these insights are informing policy and the development of evidence-based programmes.

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