Scots three-year-olds ahead of the rest of the UK

11 June 2007

Scottish children have a wider vocabulary and a better understanding of colours, numbers, sizes and shapes at the age of three than youngsters in the other UK countries.


Amended 23/07/2007

Scottish children have a wider vocabulary and a better understanding of colours, numbers, sizes and shapes at the age of three than youngsters in the other UK countries.

Their early educational prowess has been revealed by a research study that is tracking the development of more than 15,500 “children of the new century” who were born between 2000 and 2002.

Researchers from the Millennium Cohort Study who rated the vocabulary of more than 12,000 of the children found that, on average, youngsters in Scotland were three1 months ahead of three-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A second assessment, measuring “school readiness”, that involved 11,500 children, put the Scots two months ahead of the UK average.

The vocabulary assessment required the children to look at a series of everyday items and name them. The school readiness measure gauged their understanding of not only colours, numbers and shapes but letters, counting and comparisons. More than 1,250 children in Scotland took part in each assessment.

The study is being conducted by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London. Professor Heather Joshi, the Centre’s director, said that further analysis would have to be carried out in order to establish why Scots three-year-olds were outperforming the rest of the UK. “Various factors may help to explain this,” she said. “There are fewer large families in Scotland and there were relatively more prosperous families in our sample. There is also less ethnic diversity, but a full investigation remains to be completed.”

The study has produced a vast range of other findings about the lives of the Scottish three-year-olds and their parents. It also reveals that:

  • Only 3 per cent of the Scottish fathers say they never read to their children (compared to 7 per cent in Wales).
  • Families in Scotland are more mobile – in terms of housing – than in other parts of the UK.
  • Forty-one per cent of families had moved during the first three years of their child’s life. They had also moved the longest distance on average (35 kilometres).
  • Almost four in five Scots parents think their home area is either an excellent or good one in which to bring up children.
  • Only 6.2 per cent of the Scottish three-year-olds had three or more siblings (compared with 14.2 per cent in Northern Ireland).
  • Mothers in Scotland are most likely to have rules governing their child’s behaviour (one in three said they had “lots”).
  • They are also more likely to have jobs (62 per cent) than mothers in other UK countries.

1 Further analysis of the data, carried out after this press release was issued, revealed that the actual difference was two months.

Notes for editors:

1. The Centre for Longitudinal Studies is an Economic and Social Research Council Resource Centre based at the Institution of Education. The Centre houses three internationally-renowned birth cohort studies: the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study. The Millennium Cohort Study is co-funded by a number of government departments, including the Scottish Executive.

2. The second sweep of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS2) collected information from 15,590 families of children born across the UK in 2000-2 when they reached the age of three. Almost all of these families (14,898) had been in the first survey when the children were nine-months-old. An additional 692 families were recruited for the second survey in England who had been eligible for the first survey but not included. The study’s first sweep, carried out during 2001-2, laid the foundations for this major new longitudinal research resource, involving a year-long cohort of around 19,000 babies. It recorded the circumstances of pregnancy and birth, the all-important early months of life, and the social and economic backgrounds of the families into which the children were born. The second survey data allow researchers for the first time to chart the changing circumstances of these children and their families and offer some direct measurements of the children’s development at the age of three which can be related to their earlier experiences. The sample was designed to provide adequate numbers from areas with high proportions of minority-ethnic residents (in England) and high child poverty, as well as the three smaller countries of the UK. The first survey covered 2,370 children in Scotland and the second, 1,841. The analysis of cognitive scores was based on a sub-set of three-year-olds.

3. Three-year-olds who were assessed as part of MCS2 took the British Ability Scales (BAS) Naming Vocabulary subtest, which is part of a suite of cognitive tests designed for children aged between three and 17 years. The test is individually administered. The interviewer asks the child to name a series of pictures of everyday items. There are 36 items in total, although the number each child is asked about is dependent on their performance. The assessment is terminated if five successive items are answered incorrectly. BAS assesses the expressive language ability of children. It was not administered to children who do not speak English.

4. School readiness was assessed using six subtests of the Revised Bracken Basic Concept Scale, which measures children’s knowledge of those ‘readiness’ concepts that parents and teachers traditionally teach children in preparation for formal education. The test has been designed for children in the age range of two-and-a-half to seven years and 11 months. The six subtests comprise the assessment of children’s basic concepts such as colours, letters, numbers/counting, sizes, comparisons and shapes. This test is also individually administered. As a non-verbal test, requiring the child to point, but not speak, it could be given in oral translation to children who do not speak English. Both cognitive assessments were administered using Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing by interviewers who were specially trained but were not professional psychologists.

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