Northern Irish seven-year-olds are the happiest in the UK

15 October 2010

Childhood may not offer the freedom that it once did but most seven-year-olds in Northern Ireland are enjoying their lives. Their parents are generally content too, a major study suggests.

At age 7, children in Northern Ireland are more likely than youngsters in England, Scotland and Wales to say that they feel safe in the playground and are always happy, researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London, have found. More than two thirds of them say they have lots of friends.

The findings have emerged from the latest survey of the Millennium Cohort Study, which is following the development of children born between 2000 and 2002. Almost half (46%) of the 1,372 Northern Ireland children questioned said they feel happy all the time, compared with 42 per cent in Scotland, 40 per cent in Wales and only 35 per cent in England.

Northern Irish seven-year-olds are, however, slightly more likely to be overweight or obese than children in other parts of the UK, the survey shows. Seventeen per cent are classed as overweight and a further 8 per cent are obese. The equivalent figures for England are 14 per cent and 6 per cent.

The survey, which was carried out in 2008/9 and involved more than 14,000 children, also found that only 25 per cent of seven-year-olds in Northern Ireland walk to school, compared with 55 per cent of Scots children. The majority of Northern Irish youngsters travel to school by car (59%). However, the researchers point out that there may be no link between the children’s weight and the statistics on walking to school

Professor Heather Joshi, director of the Millennium Cohort Study, says that the relatively high proportion of children in Northern Ireland living in families with poverty-level income is also concerning. Almost one in three (32%) is being brought up in families living on less than 60 per cent of the average national household income.

“Poverty clouds the lives of many Northern Irish children,” Professor Joshi acknowledges. “Nevertheless, our study has produced many positive findings about their lives and the lives of their parents.”

The survey suggests that parents in Northern Ireland enjoy higher levels of life satisfaction than in other parts of the UK. They are also less likely to suffer from emotional stress and most likely to say they are in excellent health.

Mothers and fathers in Northern Ireland appear to drink less frequently than parents in England, Scotland and Wales. One of the few negative health findings is that Northern Irish mothers appear to be the heaviest smokers in the UK.  Eighteen per cent of those surveyed smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day, compared with 12 per cent of mothers in England. More positively, Northern Ireland also has the highest percentage of fathers who do not smoke (75%).

The survey found that:

Friendships and safety

  • Sixty-seven per cent of seven-year-olds in Northern Ireland – but only 61 per cent in England – feel safe in the playground.
  • In Northern Ireland and Wales 68 per cent of children say they have lots of friends, compared with 64.5 per cent in Scotland and 62.5 per cent in England.

 Family structure

  • 61 per cent of seven-year-olds in Northern Ireland are living with married natural parents, compared with 55 per cent in England, 53 per cent in Scotland and 51 per cent in Wales.
  • Only 2 per cent are being brought up in stepfather families, compared with 6 per cent in England and 7 per cent in Scotland and Wales.
  • Seven-year-olds in Northern Ireland have the most siblings (20 per cent have three or more, compared with 11-14 per cent in other UK countries).


  • Mothers in Northern Ireland report the most regular bedtimes. Sixty-two per cent always send their children to bed at a specific time, compared with 56.5 of mothers in Wales.
  • Northern Irish mothers are also most likely to say they read to their child every day – 47 per cent, compared with 37.5 per cent in Scotland.

Child health and physical activity

  •  Seven-year-olds in Northern Ireland are the least likely to suffer from eczema (26%) and hay fever (13%), while children in England are the most likely (35% and 16% respectively).
  • Children in Northern Ireland are also the least likely to have accidents that require hospital or local surgical treatment. Parents in Wales reported the highest number of accidents over the previous two years – 3.5 for every 10 children. The Northern Ireland figure was 2.5.

Parental health

  • Thirty per cent of the Northern Irish mothers said they enjoy excellent health, compared with 21.5 per cent of mothers in England. The same pattern was seen for men: 31 per cent of Northern Irish fathers but only 23 per cent of fathers in England described their health as excellent.

The findings appear in a report published today by the Institute of Education’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies: Millennium Cohort Study, Fourth Survey: A User’s Guide to Initial Findings. Copies of the report can be downloaded from (from 10am on Friday, October 15).

Further information from:

David Budge

(off) 020 7911 5349

(mob) 07811 415362

 Notes for editors:

  1. The Millennium Cohort Study has been tracking the Millennium children through their early childhood and plans to follow them into adulthood. It covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income; housing; and neighbourhood. It is the first of the nationwide cohort studies to over-sample areas with high densities of ethnic minorities and large numbers of disadvantaged families. Previous surveys of the cohort were carried out when the children were aged nine months, three years and five years. The study is housed at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education. It was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of government departments.
  2. Data from the fieldwork for the fourth survey of the Millennium cohort are now available from the UK Data Archive
  3. The contract for data collection in MCS is awarded under competitive tender to specialist agencies. For three of the four surveys undertaken to date the data collection was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, who in turnsub-contracted the interviewing in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. The agency responsible for the second round of data collection was Gfk-NOP, who sub-contracted in Northern Ireland to Millward Brown.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (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 planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports more than 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  5. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. 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”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.                                                                                                 Ends …

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