Book Review: An extraordinary story of ordinary lives

Caroline Knowles
29 February 2016

There was a fascinating piece in The Guardian this weekend celebrating the British Cohort Studies – a unique set of studies that have tracked children born in 1946, 1958, 1970, in the early 1990s, and at the turn of the millennium. The article, based on a new book by journalist Helen Pearson shows the impressive range of evidence these studies have contributed to policymaking and shaped so many things that we now take for granted in the UK – starting with the integration of free maternity services into the nascent National Health Service in 1948, to the reform of the system of selective secondary schools in the 1960s, evidence on the crisis in basic skills which led to a major expansion of adult education in the 1990s, and more recently the rising crisis of obesity and its implications for health and social care.

Although we have only been following the Young Lives cohort children for 12 years to date, the similarities with our findings and other cohort studies in developing countries are remarkable. The UK studies show that inequality has dogged every generation, and in every cohort the poorer children are more likely to struggle at school, to be less healthy, and to find it harder to get good jobs. Young Lives shows the importance of early childhood circumstances for later outcomes, how inequalities open up during children’s school trajectories, and how, in low-resource settings, ill health is a constant drain on family resources and a barrier to children’s life-chances.

Several things resonated for me:

  1. The power of the data grows with each survey round: Scientists have been able to go back to information collected early in life to see the later impacts. As with the Lothian Birth Cohorts of 1921 and 1936 which use data from school tests administered to 11-year-olds in Scotland, the British cohort studies now have over 70 years’ worth of information about the changing nature of health and wealth in the UK.
  2. There have been some unexpected findings: conclusive evidence came in the 1970s, for example, about the link between smoking in pregnancy and still births, infant deaths and low birthweights, led to one of the most significant changes in public health awareness of the twentieth century.
  3. There can be unintended consequences: The Busselton Health Study was set up in a small community in Australia with the explicit aim of providing epidemiological data, but also empowered residents to take an active role in their own health and well-being.
  4. Although these are observational studies, the breadth of data collected permits researchers to go back again and again and explore the data for a range of questions, unplanned at the outset – the impacts of pollution, or divorce, or the genes involved in disease, for example – which enable them to hold up a mirror to the changing nature of British society.

And that’s the beauty of longitudinal data: it allows researchers to identify links between people’s circumstances early in life and their later outcomes, and it also shows how persistent particular circumstances are.

The success the British cohort studies have had in using evidence to bring about policy change is inspiring. The learning for Young Lives is that we must use our evidence to show not only national patterns but the trends that are likely to affect other low-income countries in future as well.

Further reading:

What Can Longitudinal Research Tell Us About Children’s Life-chances?
What Can Comparative Country Research Tell Us About Child Poverty?
The Life Project: Helen Pearson’s history of the UK’s birth cohort studie