Cherishing all the children equally?

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First study of its kind uses Growing Up in Ireland data to provide a comprehensive overview of factors influencing child wellbeing

Today, the ESRI published the first comprehensive analysis of inequalities among children in modern Ireland. For the first time, significant findings from 10 years of the pioneering Growing Up in Ireland study have been assembled to provide an authoritative description of how factors such as education, family and health in 21st Century Ireland influence children’s outcomes.

The groundbreaking findings from the first longitudinal profile of children in Ireland provide insights into critical points in child development, allowing the authors of the book to investigate if the words in the 1916 Proclamation of Independence, resolving to “…cherish all of the children of the nation equally”, have been realised 100 years on from the Easter Rising.

The book finds that despite many improvements in education, health and socio-emotional outcomes in the last century, children’s wellbeing in contemporary Ireland is largely shaped by parental circumstances and social position, resulting in persistent inequalities. The findings in the book point to implications for public policy that could support families most in need and help children to reach their potential regardless of family circumstances, health or ethnic background.
Changing family models

  • The book assesses the impact of different family units on child development, in the context of dramatic changes to the family model in the last 100 years, including an increase in one-parent families, blended families and non-marital births and the rising incidence of divorce, separation, cohabitation, civil partnerships and same-sex marriage.
  • Much of the research from Growing Up in Ireland finds a consistent pattern of disadvantage for children living in one-parent families, mostly due to poorer socio-economic circumstances of one-parent families. There is a greater likelihood of welfare dependence, lower maternal education and lower income among one-parent families.  Even accounting for differences in family characteristics such as income, maternal education, parent-child conflict and maternal depression, children in one-parent families are at a significant disadvantage in terms of their risk of experiencing socio-emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Language development

  • Development of language skills in early childhood is strongly associated with the economic and educational resources available to a child in the home – the higher the family’s income or the higher the level of the mother’s education the more advanced is the child’s language development – even at 3 years of age.  Home-based learning activities, parental expectations, reading to young children, or visits to the library are all much more common among children from more advantaged families.

Childcare

  • Historically, non-parental childcare levels have been low in Ireland, though they have increased since the mid-1970s with a much higher proportion of women working outside the home, particularly during the boom years of the mid 2000s.  Relative care (typically by grandparents) is the most common type for infants with centre-based care becoming more commonly used for 3 year olds.
  • Levels of non-parental childcare are higher among more advantaged families.  The type of childcare also varies according to family circumstances.  Paid, non-relative or centre-based care is more common among more advantaged families; unpaid relative care is more common among less advantaged families.  Future research will be required as the children get older to explore the implications of these care patterns for social inequality in children’s development.
  • The introduction of the Free Pre-School Year in 2010 has extended access to pre-school among disadvantaged groups who would not otherwise have been able to avail of it.  This levelling of access to pre-school care and education within regulated centres as a result of the Free Pre-school Year is to be welcomed.

Inequalities on School Entry

  • Social inequalities were apparent in the skills children bring with them to the primary school setting.  The analyses presented in the book indicate that the attitudes, dispositions and language skills of 5-year-olds differ according to social class background, mother’s education and household income.  These social characteristics, however, although significant, do not explain as much of the social gap in school readiness as factors such as having a Special Educational Need or disability, children’s home environment and early language and cognitive development.

Integration of Migrant Children

  • Ireland’s population has become substantially more multicultural over recent decades – mostly in the context of EU accession.  The 2011 Census of Population indicated that 12 per cent of the population was of a nationality other than Irish.  A total of 16 per cent of births in Ireland were to non-Irish mothers in 2004, rising to 23 per cent by 2008.  The Growing Up in Ireland study found that mothers with a migrant background tend to be more highly educated than Irish mothers, this being especially so for those from Western Europe and Asia.  Accounting for a wide range of other family, school and economic characteristics, reading scores among migrant children are lower than among Irish children, especially for children whose mothers are from Eastern Europe.  Maths scores are also lower, especially for children whose mothers are from African countries.

Health

Various measures of social inequality in health outcomes are illustrated in the book:

  • Low birth weight (less than 2,500 gms) may have a lasting impact on a child’s growth and development.  7.9 per cent of children from lowest income families were found to be low birth weight, compared to 4.6 per cent of those from the highest income families.  Low birth weight children are five times more likely not to meet developmental thresholds for communications and gross motor skills at 9 months of age and even have lower scores on reading and maths tests at 9 years of age.
  • Overweight and obesity were also found to be strongly linked to social disadvantage.  Approximately 25 per cent of 3-year-olds were overweight or obese.  The children of unskilled manual parents were 65 per cent more likely to be obese at 3 years of age than the children of professional parents.
  • Breastfeeding rates in Ireland are substantially below the international average and are very strongly linked to the social background of the mother.  For example, 77 per cent of infants whose parents are professional workers are breastfed, compared to 33 per cent among the most socially disadvantaged.

The Recession and economic vulnerability

  • Economic vulnerability is defined in the book in terms of income, economic stress and household joblessness.  Vulnerability increased during the recession (approximately 2007/2008 to 2011/2012), for both the younger and older cohorts of children included in the Growing Up in Ireland study, from 15 to 25 per cent for the older children and from 19 to 25 per cent for the younger ones.  Economic vulnerability, particularly where it was experienced on a persistent basis across two rounds of the study, was associated with a detrimental effect on the child’s socio-emotional well-being.

James Williams, Research Professor at the ESRI and one of the co-editors of the book, commented “While we have undoubtedly made huge strides in terms of how we think about and treat children in Ireland, the book presents evidence concluding that we have not lived up to the Proclamation’s resolution to cherish all of the children of the nation equally. Despite the changing nature of inequality over time, children’s future prospects continue to be shaped by family circumstances. Measures existing to help children flourish must be cognisant of the powerful impact of the home environment on child wellbeing and development.”

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