New Growing Up in Ireland research presents a generally positive picture of being a 5-year-old in Ireland but early emergence of unequal outcomes is a cause for concern

Growing Up in Ireland today (21st February, 2019) publishes a new report on the lives of children who were 5 years old in 2013.  The results cover the socio-economic circumstances of the families in which the 5-year-olds lived and those children’s outcomes in key domains of health, socio-emotional development (including relationship with parents) and school/cognitive development.

Launch of Growing Up in Ireland reports 21 Feb 2019

Dr Eoin McNamara (ESRI), Dr Aisling Murray (ESRI), Dr Anne-Marie Brooks (DCYA), Dr Clare Farrell (DCYA), Millie Palmer (age 5), Professor Emer Smyth (ESRI), Professor Dorothy Watson (ESRI), Finn Grant (age 1), Professor Richard Layte (Trinity College Dublin) and Professor Elizabeth Nixon (Trinity College Dublin) launching two new Growing Up in Ireland reports at the ESRI on 21 February 2019. 

The report is based on interviews completed with over 9,000 families conducted when the children were 9 months old (in 2008), 3 years old (in 2011) and in 2013 when the children were 5 years old.  Being 5 years of age is a critical period in the lives of children as most of them will have made the transition to primary school.  These children are also of particular interest because they were the first cohort who participated in the free pre-school year scheme.

This report will help to inform policy-makers and others involved in providing services for young children in the areas of health, education and socio-emotional development and in providing supports for their families.

Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) is the national longitudinal study of children. It is funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, with a contribution from The Atlantic Philanthropies. The study is managed and overseen by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in association with the Central Statistics Office. It is carried out by a consortium of researchers led by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

Education and cognitive development

  • At the time of the home interview in spring/summer 2013, 70% of the 5-year-olds had started school the previous September (2012). Generally, boys started school a little later than girls: they were more likely than girls to have started in 2013 rather than in 2012. 
  • The most common reason for delaying school start until September 2013 given by parents was ‘I thought child was too young’ (79% said this reason was very important), followed by ‘I didn’t think child was ready to start school’ (65% very important).
  • Almost all 5-year-olds had availed of the free preschool year scheme (formally known as the Early Childhood Care and Education, or ECCE, scheme).  Parents in the lowest income group were most likely to report that they would not have been able to send their child to preschool in the absence of the scheme (39% compared to 9% of those in the highest income group).
  • Parents whose children attended preschool were asked to rate the facility in terms of the richness of the care environment (e.g. ‘There were plenty of toys, books, pictures and music for my child’) and perceived quality of care (e.g. ‘My caregiver was open to new information and learning’).  Parental ratings of facilities tended to be positive overall, especially in terms of the richness of the environment.
  • Beginning in the autumn of 2013, the children’s teachers were asked to rate individual children on different subject areas compared to the average child of a similar age (not just other children in the class). This information was completed for over 92% of children. Teachers gave the most positive ratings in relation to speaking and listening in English with over 40% described as above average and just 14% below average (42% average).  In contrast, just 23% were described as above average for speaking and listening in Irish (56% average and 19% below average.  On maths and numeracy, one-third of children were described as being above average and just 10% below average (54% average).  
  • Boys were more likely than girls to be rated as below average in speaking and listening in English (18% vs 11%) and Irish (22% vs 15%) but there was no significant gender difference in maths and numeracy.

Socio-emotional development 

  • Based on a series of questions to parents on whether the 5-year-old had difficulties in any of the areas of emotions, concentration, behaviour or being able to get on with other people, 81% reported no difficulties, 16% reported minor difficulties, 3% reported definite difficulties and just 1% reported severe difficulties.
  • More boys than girls were reported to have (any) difficulties in these areas (24% compared to 15%) and the rate of reported difficulties was also higher in one-parent families (27% vs. 18% in two-parent families) and in urban areas (22% vs 17% in rural areas).
  • Many children, despite their reported difficulties, did not seem (according to their parents) to be particularly upset or distressed by them. Over 80% of children with some difficulties were reported by parents to be either ‘not at all’ or ‘only a little’ upset by them.
  • There were few differences by family income, mother’s education or social class in parents’ reports of the child’s social skills (including responsibility, empathy, assertion and self-control).  There were differences by gender, however, with girls more likely than boys to be in the top (most favourable) group in terms of social skills development, especially empathy: 29% of girls were in the top quartile compared to just 20% of boys.
  • Parents tended to report very positively on their feelings of being close to the child and with low levels of conflict between them.  However, parents who reported less positive relationships with the child at age 3 years were less likely to be positive about how they got on with the same child at age 5.

Health and injury

The report examines the general health of 5-year-olds, as reported by their mothers, as well as the presence of specific conditions and experience of injury.

  • Most 5-year-olds were reported by their mothers to be in good health: 77% were described as very healthy, no problems. The percentage of children reported to be very healthy was even higher in the highest-income families (80%), among girls (79% compared to 74% of boys) and those who had been very healthy at 9 months old (80%).
  • Mothers described 18% of 5-year-olds as having a longstanding illness, condition or disability (not necessarily diagnosed by a specialist).  The most common conditions (expressed as a percentage of the total sample) were asthma (8%) and eczema or skin allergy (4%).
  • Over a quarter of children (28%) had sustained an injury requiring a trip to a doctor, health centre or hospital at any time up to the age of five.
  • Most of these children had suffered only one such injury but nearly 20% of that group (5% of all 5-year-olds) had multiple injuries requiring attention from a medical professional.
  • Looking at the most recent injury, the most frequent type was a head injury without loss of consciousness (30% of those with any injury and 8% of the entire sample), followed by a cut requiring stitches or glue (19% of injuries and 5% of the sample) and a broken bone or fracture (again, 19% of injuries and 5% of the sample).
  • As noted in previous waves of Growing Up in Ireland, the percentage of 5-year-olds who were overweight continues to be of concern.  One-in-five children were unhealthily heavy for their height (15% overweight and 5% obese). Children whose parents were also overweight were at greater risk: in two-parent families where both parents were overweight, 28% of 5-year-olds were overweight compared to just 8% of children in two-parent families where neither parent was overweight (16% in families where one of two parents was overweight).
  • While many children regularly enjoyed physically active games, there was some evidence that preferences emerged early in the child’s life: 55% of 3-year-olds who were described at the time as preferring active games played ball every day at age 5 years and 56% later rode a bike (every day).  This compares to 37% (ball) and 42% (bike) for those children who showed a preference for inactive games as 3-year-olds.

The children’s families

 The study provided an account of the socio-economic situation of families, including how they were affected by the recession and how well they felt they could balance work and family life.  

  • Over half (55%) of the mothers of 5-year-olds were at work outside the home in 2013, evenly divided between those working up to 30 hours and more than 30 hours per week. Of mothers in employment, nearly half felt they had missed out on family activities because of work responsibilities and over one quarter said they had to turn down work opportunities because of family responsibilities.
  • Parents in a quarter of families reported (great) difficulty in making ends meet, with a figure of 21% when the child was 3 years old and 13% when the child was 9 months old.
  • Eighty-six per cent of 5-year-olds lived with both parents and 14% of them had a biological parent living elsewhere (non-resident parent). 
  • Among those with a non-resident parent, the resident parent (usually the mother) reported that 58% of them had never lived with the non-resident parent. One-quarter of these families had a formal parenting arrangement regarding the child and where he or she lived and 29% had an informal one. Where there was a parenting arrangement with the non-resident parent, it had been generally arrived at by mutual agreement between the parents. 
  • Over one-third (37%) of children with a non-resident parent had face-to-face contact with them more than once a week; 16% had face-to-face contact once a week; 20% had face-to-face contact less often and 27% had no face-to-face contact at all.  Some of these parents would have had contact with their children by phone or other means, however.

Implications for policy

The report provides evidence relevant to policy affecting the lives of 5-year olds.  In particular, the report highlights that children in families living in socio-economic disadvantage are already at greater risk of poor outcomes in areas as diverse as health, overweight/obesity, socio-emotional difficulties and school-readiness. 

Longitudinally, the report further showed some persistence of outcomes over time so that children with poorer outcomes at age 3 were more likely to also have poorer outcomes at age 5. For example, half of children who were already overweight at age 3 (and three-quarters of those who were obese) were in the overweight category again at age 5 years.  Similarly children with better vocabulary skills at age 3 years were the most likely to be doing well in this area again at 5 years.  These findings point to the possible policy benefits of early interventions to improve child outcomes.

Dr Aisling Murray, the report’s lead author, said:

“Being 5 years old is a busy time in the life of a child with the big transition to school and an expansion of their world to include new people and opportunities to try new skills.  This report shows that while most children are doing well at home and in school, some early inequalities in child outcomes are already detectable in health, learning and well-being and, unfortunately, these may continue as the child grows up.”

Commenting on the publication of this new report, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone said:

"I welcome this new report from Growing Up in Ireland, the national longitudinal study funded mainly by my Department.   The findings show that in many respects most children are doing well across key areas of their lives.  But they also highlight difficulties experienced by some children from a young age.  This evidence  confirms the importance of ‘First Five’, Ireland’s first ever cross-Departmental strategy to support babies, young children and their families, being led by my Department – in particular its strong focus on measures to address early childhood poverty, child health, early learning services and access to a broader range of options to help parents balance work and caring."


Dr Aisling Murray presented key findings from this research at the launch event, which took place at the ESRI on 21 February 2019.