A tribute to the founding director of the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and professor of education who sadly passed away on 22 August 2023.
John was a key thought leader in the development of life course studies as an area of scholarship within social science, where he specialised in research on educational and occupational transitions, and basic skills and capabilities.
His name is synonymous with the British birth cohort studies, of which we are so proud here at CLS. He was instrumental in breathing new life into the 1958 and 1970 studies during the 1980s and 1990s, when their future was less than certain, developing them into the ‘crown jewels’ of British social science.
His seminal work on adult basic skills informed New Labour policy during the 2000s, helping to improve the literacy and numeracy of millions of British adults. Later in life, he was a major figure promoting the value of life course analysis worldwide, and he passionately advocated for funding new cohort studies following younger generations.
After graduating in psychology at Bristol University in the early 1960s, John’s career in social science began when he worked on a project examining the sexual behaviour of young people as a research assistant and interviewer. While completing his PhD in social psychology at Birkbeck College, John further developed his interests in data collection and analysis, joining the Government Social Survey to look at young people’s smoking habits.
He began his lifelong passion for longitudinal research in the 1970s while at the Open University. Following the Plowden Committee’s report on primary school education, which had collected data from children and their parents while at primary school, John utilised data from a follow-up survey conducted by Roma Morton-Williams to examine parents’ attitudes to education as their children progressed to secondary school.
In the following decade, he began to develop his own interests scientifically in Britain’s birth cohort studies, and worked to raise awareness of their importance, at a time when the government’s disinterest in social sciences jeopardised the future of these invaluable resources
In his 1984 report, Secondary Use of the National Child Development Study commissioned by the ESRC, John was asked to analyse why it was that people weren’t using the 1958 cohort study. Speaking to us in 2020 he explained: “I discovered that people couldn’t use the study because it was simply too complicated. And it had been designed and used always in the past by the people who actually had created it. And they hadn’t seen the need for documentation and all these things which become crucial for users. And that’s what I came up with, a sort of programme that would enable much better interest in use to be generated about the study.”
As a result of John’s championing of NCDS, and his vision for making data easier to use and share, ESRC decided that they would fund a user support unit that would improve the quality of the NCDS dataset, create comprehensive documentation and guidance for researchers and enhance the coverage of the dataset in future survey sweeps.
The user support group was set up in 1984 at City University’s Social Statistics Research Unit (SSRU), then led by John Fox, a former government researcher. When John Fox moved back into government, John Bynner was invited to take over the reins of NCDS. This involved running the support unit at the SSRU, and overseeing new data collections in NCDS.
By the early 1990s, John and his small team would take a giant leap towards bringing the British birth cohort studies under one roof, when he was asked by Professor Neville Butler to take over the running of the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70). CLS survey manager, Kate Smith, who worked with John for three decades, told us in 2020: “John was really fundamental in bringing up and continuing the 1970 cohort, he did not want to see the 1970 cohort not continue.”
In 1998, John moved the cohorts to the then Institute of Education and became the founding director of the newly formed Centre for Longitudinal Studies, where he worked to secure ongoing funding for data collections in NCDS and BCS70. During this period, he implemented important innovations across the studies, in particular to allow for ongoing cross-generational comparisons between cohorts. His long-term collaborator, Dr Sam Parsons, explained: “John was brilliant at championing the cause of the studies. It was all part of John’s master plan, of trying to get them (the study members) interviewed at very similar age points so that you can allow for all these cross-cohort comparisons.”
John also helped to oversee new biomedical investigation in NCDS in mid-life, which greatly extended the value and reach of the study for epidemiological research, building on its original roots as a medical study at birth, and during childhood.
In the late 1990s, the New Labour government took power with a mission of reducing inequalities across society using evidence-based policymaking. Under John’s leadership, the value of the cohort studies for policy decision-making was clearly recognised: as well as utilising evidence from the cohorts to inform numerous flagship government policies during their 13-years reign, during this time CLS was funded to run the first new birth cohort study to be launched in thirty years, the Millennium Cohort Study.
This era would see John produce some of his most important and impactful research. Using data from the 1958 and 1970 cohorts, John and Sam Parsons highlighted the worryingly low levels of numeracy and literacy among Britain’s adults, revealing the challenges they faced getting by without these skills. A series of studies on basic skills would go on to inform government numeracy and literacy policies for the next decade, galvanising the New Labour government to launch the Skills for Life initiative in 2001.
Thanks to Skills for Life, “14 million adults participated in adult literacy and numeracy activities, and over 8 million qualifications were achieved, which produced a 13% improvement in literacy,” according to former Department for Education and Skills policymaker, Dr Sue Pember.
John and his colleagues would continue to work with the Blair government during the 2000s, with evidence from cohort study research informing a savings scheme for all children born in the UK. John and Sofia Despotidou’s study found that having even very modest savings at age 23 had a range of beneficial economic, social and health effects 10 years later.
From 2005, the Labour government aimed to create a pot of savings for every child. Although the scheme was later closed, in 2011, it left a significant legacy in the form of the millions of children’s nest eggs which started to hatch in 2020 when these children began to turn 18.
David Blunkett, the former education secretary said in 2005, “We were absolutely staggered by the difference that having some assets, some stake, made to individuals, not just in terms of that start in life as adults at the age of 18 but throughout life, a difference obviously in terms of security and stability, but also actually their willingness to engage with life.”
Although John officially retired as director of CLS in 2003, he continued to collaborate with his fellow academics on numerous books and research papers in his role as emeritus professor. In particular, he collaborated with social scientists from various disciplines – including sociology, social and developmental psychology, epidemiology and demography – in several countries who had been inspired by the work of Glen Elder in the US to bring a life course perspective to social science.
The circle of life course collaborators were brought together by John to form the International Society for Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies. Initially drawn from North America, Europe, (including Russia), and Australasia, the society’s membership is now spread across the globe, and he became Executive Editor of the society’s new journal, the International Journal of Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies.
During his career John wrote 16 books and published 143 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. His most recent publications included a book with Walter Heinz comparing the prospects for young people in UK and Germany in the 2020s, and a volume he co-edited with Ingrid Schoon on youth in the great recession.
John remained an active member of CLS until very recently, making a remarkable contribution to the ESRC’s Longitudinal Studies Review in 2017, in which he argued passionately for a new UK-wide birth cohort study to be commissioned. He provided advice, encouragement and inspiration to CLS staff to the very end, and we will remember him with love and gratitude, for his great leadership and lasting legacy.