"Three reasons why the European Cohort study is needed" by Gwyther Rees (University of York, Consultant at UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti)


There has been major progress in the study of children’s well-being globally. This includes insights from international comparative studies of educational achievement1, of health behaviours2, and of children’s broader experiences3. But there are still major knowledge gaps. To fill these gaps, at least three things are needed: (1) data on a broad range of aspects of child well-being; (2) longitudinal data; (3) comparative data across countries.

  1. The phrase ‘children’s well-being’ means different things to different people. But it is now broadly agreed, including by organisations such as UNICEF and the OECD that it is multi-dimensional – i.e. it encompasses a range of different aspects. It includes children’s subjective experience in the present, as well as aspects such as educational achievement which are more future-oriented. Sometimes these different aspects are not closely connected. For example, the most recent PISA study of children’s educational skills in OECD countries asked children aged 15 about their life satisfaction. In most of the 24 EU countries where the question was asked, there was little or no statistical link between with children’s satisfaction with life and their academic test scores. In the Netherlands – the country with the strongest link – children who did better at science had lower life satisfaction! An earlier round of the same study asked children how much they liked school. Some countries near the top of the league table in terms of mathematics scores, such as the Republic of Korea, Estonia and Finland were near the bottom of the league table for happiness at school. These examples show that we need to study a range of well-being indicators to get a rounded picture of children’s well-being. Children may be doing well at school but also be stressed and unhappy.
  2. Longitudinal studies are needed because if we only gather snapshot (cross-sectional) data we can’t learn about how contexts and experiences at one point in time might affect later outcomes. For example, it is often argued that early childhood is a crucial influence on children’s later well-being. This applies to cognitive development but not necessarily apply to all aspects of well-being. In fact, a recent analysis of longitudinal data in the UK suggest that there is very little connection between children’s early childhood circumstances and their subjective well-being at the age of 11. In fact, children’s subjective experience at this age in the UK is much more closely linked to their present experiences such as the quality of family relationships and experiences of being bullied. Experiences of poverty across childhood also have varying links with different aspects of child well-being (Figure 1). At the moment the data to undertake this kind of analysis for children’s subjective experience is not available in many countries.
  3. In fact, generally, our current understanding about children’s well-being is mostly based on studies in a few countries such as the US and UK. We can’t be sure that these findings apply everywhere. For example, in the UK, children who are often bullied by other children are more likely than average to have low life satisfaction, low happiness and high sadness. But, an international study shows that this pattern is not consistent across nine EU countries (Figure 2). We need to understand much more about why similar experiences show such different patterns across countries. If we had a larger amount of comparable data across countries we could potentially learn much more.

The proposed European cohort study would simultaneously address all three challenges discussed above. It would generate longitudinal and cross-national data that covers a wide range of aspects of children’s well-being, including subjective experiences. It would make a huge and unique contribution to debates about how to improve children’s experience of childhood and their future prospects as adults across Europe.

Figure 1: Childhood experiences of poverty and selected well-being indicators at 14 years old in the UK

Data source: Millennium Cohort Study, Sweeps 1 to 6, UK

There is a stronger and clearer gradient of frequency of poverty (measured at six points across childhood) with measures of literacy and emotional/behavioural difficulties (EBDs) than with depressive symptoms and life satisfaction, all measured at 14 years old.

Figure 2: Differences in life satisfaction linked to being bullied in the past month, children aged 10 and 12 years old, selected EU countries

Data source: Children’s Worlds study, Wave 2, 2013-14

There was a much stronger link between being bullied (hit or excluded by other children at school) more than once in the past month and life satisfaction in some countries than others. The gap in life satisfaction between children who did and did not have this experiences was over 10 points (on a scale from 0 to 100) in Poland, Germany, the UK and Italy but less than two points in Romania.



e.g. Children’s Worlds

Gwyther Rees is an Associate Research Fellow at University of York - where he is Research Director for the Children's Worlds study - and a Consultant at UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti. The views expressed in this blog are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of the above organisations.