"By prioritising child well-being outcomes across the life course we can improve education and learning" Dominic Richardson (UNICEF Office of Research Innocenti)


It has long been acknowledged in the research literature that well-being outcomes in one area of life are beneficial for others. Healthier children learn better, well-off children learn better, smarter children have more success in the adult labour market and so on. In recent years, comparative research on child well-being has evolved from what child well-being looks like cross-nationally, to why it differs between countries, to how policy can influence change.

It is a simple task to juxtapose several measures of child well-being for monitoring and to assess what explains variability across outcomes on a given measure. But understanding how these indicators interconnect as children age and how policy can best achieve multiple outcomes is a much more complex process. It may be complex, but it is also important: how child well-being goals interconnect over time can inform the prioritisation of child well-being interventions by age, and goes some way to addressing the question – ‘What should we do first for child well-being?’. Policymakers need answers to these kinds of questions and to answer them we need longitudinal data from large surveys of children and young people that follow their progress over time.

I have recently co-authored a review of over 100 studies derived from 26 longitudinal surveys that explore links between educational outcomes in childhood and well-being outcomes at another point in the life course. The aim of this review was to provide policy makers with more evidence on how to work better together and respond more effectively to the challenge of meeting multiple goals for children with limited policy options and finite public resources. We defined wellbeing in terms of health, material well-being, behaviours and risks and family and peer relationships. In our review we combined data from the studies we identified in a process called ‘meta-analysis’. We found an abundance of evidence on how achieving educational outcomes can be seriously influenced by cross-sectoral actions, both via organized multi-sectoral collaboration and through the risk to educational investments created by inefficiencies or failures in uncoordinated but complementary sectors.

  • For some children, non-educational factors at different points in the life course can dominate the effects of education factors. The results of this study indicate that health and safety factors, and family relationships, matter most.
  • Well-being outcomes in younger children generally tend to influence educational returns to a greater extent than older children.
  • We found relatively little data on middle childhood (aged 6 to 11), but what we did find suggests that this period is particularly sensitive to cross-sectoral interventions affecting education.
  • Finally, the role of family wealth and resources and childcare are not the most influential determinants of educational outcomes – despite them both being popular explanations of education outcomes in the general discourse. Household income explains between 8 and 16 per cent of variance in educational outcomes compared to health- and risk-related issues (including nutrition) which influence educational outcomes across a range equivalent to 20 to 40 per cent variation.

Our review of the evidence points towards the importance of child health and protection, and parenting issues as key factors. For instance, social protection policies, involving human services, and parenting, such as the Nurse Family Partnership-type policies at the local level, or pre-and post-natal policies and childcare policies which include parenting supports or home visits, and assistance for health and nutrition (which in some cases would involve cash transfers) are likely to produce measurable returns in educational outcomes in the long run. The evidence on the role of risk factors in adolescence reducing the effectiveness of school policies, or crowding out earlier educational advantages, does point towards a role for school-based counselling or mental health supports as complementary, and preventative, intervention that would support some children in meeting their educational goals.

Inevitably determinants of educational outcomes differ according to the outcomes being analyzed: health factors such as morbidity, tend to have stronger influences on attainment and achievement than cognitive and non-cognitive skills – this might be because educational goals requiring regular school attendance. These types of differences represent important information for the design of effective child policy portfolios

What is also clear from these results is that putting the burden on the education sector alone to achieve educational outcomes is not only inefficient, but creates serious administration problems as factors influencing outcomes are not always in control of the education sector. The desire across governments, and international organizations, to coordinate across sectors makes sense from the perspective of these findings, but coordination comes with both opportunities and challenges, and requires coordination in strategy, management, finances, as well as practices at all levels of governance, to function most effectively. Simplistic calls to ‘work better together’ will not be enough. Importantly for questions of efficiency, effectiveness and ethics, policies for prevention and achieving outcomes earlier, as opposed to treatment policies in later childhood which focus on ‘fixes and course changes’, are fundamental for justifying and actioning reforms across the whole system to benefit all children and the societies in which they live.

Better information on how ‘x leads to y, and then z’ for child policies across the life course help policy-makers to better coordinate sector-specific objectives and make their available resources go further. Overall, findings from our review indicate strongly that to maximise learning outcomes there is a need for coherence in cross-sectoral child policies across the child life course, demonstrating how important longitudinal surveys of child wellbeing are for creating effective educational policy.

The full review will be published in June 2018.


Dominic Richardson is a Senior Education Specialist at UNICEF Office of Research Innocenti.