Inequalities in cognitive development persist for the millennium generation

28 November 2014

Social background remains the most powerful predictor of 11-year-olds’ cognitive abilities, a new study confirms.

Nearly 13,200 children born across the UK in 2000-01, and who take part in the Millennium Cohort Study, completed a series of tests at age 11 to measure their vocabulary, memory, problem solving and decision making.

The results of these assessments – published in a new report from the Institute of Education, University of London – show that children of the highest-qualified parents performed best across the board. Children with professional parents also scored significantly higher on the assessments than those whose parents were manual workers.


In the first task, children were read sets of words and asked how they were related.

Children whose parents had a higher degree scored nine points higher than those whose parents had no qualifications (62 points compared to 53 points on average). The gap in verbal skills between children of the most and least educated parents has persisted since age 3.

Children of professionals and managers scored 61 points on average. This was five points more than children of manual workers, and six points more than those with unemployed parents.

There were also significant differences by ethnicity at age 11. Indian children had an average score of 61, surpassing White and Mixed-ethnicity children (59 points on average) who were the highest achievers at ages 3 and 5. Pakistani and Bangladeshi children achieved the lowest average score (53 points).

“Indian children performed consistently better on all cognitive assessments than children from other ethnic groups – and Pakistani and Bangladeshi children consistently worse,” the authors explain. “But these differences are broadly in line with what we know of the socioeconomic circumstances of the ethnic groups.”

Boys scored one point more than girls on average (59 compared to 58). This is the first time that boys have outperformed girls in verbal ability.

“The children’s vocabulary has been measured since age 3,” the researchers explained. “Age 11 is the first time we’re seeing boys scoring higher than girls. While only a small difference, it remained even when taking into account other factors, such as ethnicity, parents’ qualifications and social class.”

Memory and problem solving

In the second task, completed on a computer, the children were asked to find tokens that were hidden in a gradually increasing number of boxes and then to remember where they had found them. They were scored on their ability to do so quickly, strategically and without error.

Children whose parents had no qualifications made 43 errors on average – 13 more than those whose parents had a higher degree. Children with the least educated parents were also least likely to adopt a strategic approach to the task, and took the longest to complete the task. There was a similar, although slightly smaller, gap between children of professionals and managers, and those of manual workers.

White, Indian and Mixed-ethnicity children made 35 or 36 mistakes on average. Pakistani and Bangladeshi, and Black children made the most errors (40 and 43 respectively), were less strategic, and completed the task more slowly than those from other ethnic groups.

Decision making and risk taking

In the final task, the children were shown a computer screen with 10 boxes, some red and some blue. They were asked to bet points on which colour box contained a token. They were scored on the quality of their decision (how often they chose the more likely option), speed, impulsiveness, and how many points they were willing to risk on their choice.

Children whose parents had higher degrees made better quality decisions, were faster, and took fewer risks with their points than children whose parents had no qualifications. There was a similar difference between children whose parents were professionals or managers, and those whose parents were unemployed.
Boys were much more impulsive and took more risks than girls.

“Risk taking is not a cognitive skill as such,” explain the authors. “However, attitudes to risk may have an impact on decisions regarding education and future careers – and in very different ways depending on socioeconomic background.”

Read the full report and briefing paper

Briefing paper: Child cognitive development: Initial findings from the Millennium Cohort Study Age 11 survey (PDF)

Full report: Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. (2014) Cognitive development. In Platt, L. (ed) Millennium Cohort Study Age 11 Survey Initial Findings. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS).

Podcast: Children’s cognitive development – with Matt Brown

Further information

Meghan Rainsberry
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David Budge
020 7911 5349
07881 415362

Notes for editors

At the age 11 survey, the MCS children completed three cognitive assessments:

The British Ability Scales Verbal Similarities: In this assessment, the interviewer reads three words to the child and the child must say how the words are related. For example, the interviewer might say “banana, apple and orange” and the child would respond that these are all fruit. There are a total of 37 sets of words in the assessment. If a child answers multiple sets incorrectly, the interviewer moves on to an easier set or ends the assessment. In Wales, children were given the option of completing the assessment in Welsh, but only 13 out of 1,810 chose to do so.

Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) Spatial Working Memory Task: In this computer-based assessment, the child is asked to find tokens hidden in boxes. There are 12 trials, starting off with four boxes, progressing to six and finally eight boxes. Each trial consists of a number of turns (four, six or eight – depending on the number of boxes). Within each trial the token is hidden under a different box at each turn.

During each turn, the child must remember not to open a box they have previously found to be empty. Over the course of each trial, the child must remember not open a box in which they found a token on a previous turn.

The children were given scores based on how many mistakes they made, their use of strategy to find the tokens, and how long it took them to complete each trial.

CANTAB Gambling Task: In this computer-based assessment, the child is presented with 10 boxes, some red and some blue, and told that there is a yellow token under one box. At the start of the assessment, the child is given 100 points. Each time the child is presented with a new set of 10 boxes, he or she must decide how many points to bet on whether the token is under a red or blue box.

Each new set of boxes has a different mix of red and blue, changing the likelihood that the token is under one colour or the other. For example, the child might be presented first with six red and four blue boxes, giving them a 60/40 chance of guessing correctly. In the next set, there might be eight red boxes and two blue boxes, which would make it even safer to bet on red.

The child is presented with 36 sets of boxes in total. For the first 18 sets of boxes, the child is allowed to bet 5 per cent of his or her points at first. After two seconds, the number of points the child is allowed to bet jumps to 25 per cent, then 50 per cent, then 75, and finally 95 per cent. This means the child has to wait longer to place a larger bet. For the next 18 sets of boxes, the allowance is reversed. The child starts by being able to bet 95 per cent of his or her points, and this allowance then decreases.

  1. This research employs Census categories, e.g. White, Mixed, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi used by the Office for National Statistics. Black Caribbean and Black African are included in a single category, Black groups. Due to the small number of Chinese children in the sample, these children were included in an ‘Other’ category.
  2. The Millennium Cohort Study is following children born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. The study is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, London. The five surveys of cohort members conducted so far – at ages 9 months and 3, 5, 7 and 11 years – have built up a uniquely detailed portrait of the children of the new century. The study has collected information on diverse aspects of their lives, including behaviour, cognitive development, health, schooling, housing and parents’ employment and education.
  3. The Millennium Cohort Study’s survey of 11-year-olds was carried out by Ipsos MORI between January 2012 and February 2013. Trained fieldworkers conducted 13,287 interviews with the children and their parents/guardians. Data from this survey and previous MCS surveys can be downloaded from the UK Data Service.
  4. The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of government departments, co-ordinated by the Office for National Statistics and including the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the Department for Transport, the Home Office, the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.
  5. The Institute of Education is a world-leading university specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It has been shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be ‘world leading’. On 2 December 2014, the Institute will become a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education.
  6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

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