‘From Birth to Seven’ by Ronald Davie, Neville R Butler and Harvey Goldstein

Ronald Davie, Neville R Butler and Harvey Goldstein (1972) From birth to seven: the second report of the National Child Development Study (1958 Cohort) London: Longmans 0 582 32493 9

Following the success of the 1958 Perinatal Mortality study (Butler and Bonham, 1963) a proposal was made for a study to follow up the 1958 cohort. In 1964 the National Child Development Study was set up by the Department of Education and Science, the Home Office and the Scottish Education Department and sponsored by the Institute of Child Health, the National Birthday Trust Fund, the National Bureau for Co-operation in Child Care (later National Children’s Bureau) and the National Foundation for Educational Research. It attempted to collect data on the 1958 cohort by July 1965 when they would leave infant school and an initial report on England only (Pringle et al., 1966) was provided to assist the Plowden Committee (Central Advisory Council for Education (England), 1967). This report described the background, methodology and statistical analyses undertaken; so these were not repeated in the present volume.

Key Points

  • Even where there have been improvements, relative social class differences remain.
  • Girls do better than boys at school.
  • More children could have benefited from special educational help.
  • Boys are more accident prone than girls and have more medical problems.
  • Two-thirds of children had moved but nearly two-thirds of them had remained in contact with their local area.
  • Other than boys having more temper tantrums and girls poor appetites, there were no significant differences in the behaviour of boys and girls.
  • Living in a broken home or having a working mother did not disadvantage most children.
  • Nearly a quarter of children had never been to the dentist but nearly half had been in hospital.
  • One third of children had never been breast fed and a quarter of those who had had been on cows’ milk by the end of the first month.
  • Most children had good vision but only four-fifths had normal hearing and only three-quarters were able to repeat words correctly.
  • Being in a smaller school was more important than being in a smaller class.
  • With some exceptions lower-class children and boys were more likely to be less well-behaved.
  • Early and late births and low birth-weight were associated with lower educational attainments.
  • Smoking by mother was associated with lower height at seven.
  • The factors which reliably predict that a child will be handicapped only identify half of them.
  • Those who need services most use them least.


In the Foreword, David Donnison notes that 92% of the children born in the week of 3-9 March 1958 had been traced and only 84 parents had declined to participate.

In Chapter 1 The plan of the book, the authors stress that it is for professionals rather than researchers, and so the statistical details are in the Appendix. It covers nearly 16,000 children born in March 1958 in England, Scotland and Wales. They found social class differences in all areas and, even where there had been improvements, the relative social class differences had remained the same. So they had particularly tried to identify those things not associated with social class alongside other significant associations.

In Chapter 2 Background to the study, they summarise key findings from the 1958 Perinatal Mortality Survey (Butler and Bonham, 1963) and stress how little information there is on normal children. They also discuss the issues relating to different types of study and the advantages of the longitudinal aspects of this study, not least that other studies are able to draw on the data.

The study had three elements: an educational assessment, a parental interview and a medical assessment. The educational assessment involved the Bristol Social Adjustment Guide, the Southgate reading test, a ‘copying designs’ test, a ‘drawing a man’ test and a ‘problem arithmetic’ test.

In Chapter 3 The first report, they say that the main conclusions of the first report (Pringle et al., 1966), covering only England and produced to assist the Plowden Committee (Central Advisory Council for Education (England), 1967), remain unchanged.

In relation to the educational factors, girls do better overall but the better boys are better at number than the girls; girls have better oral ability and are more creative. Fewer than five per cent of children received special educational help whereas eight per cent more could have benefited and two per cent needed special school.

Only twenty per cent of schools had a Parent Teacher Association but most had organised contact between parents and teachers.

Classes were mostly age-based with children in English schools starting phonics and formal written arithmetic after children in Scotland and Wales.

In relation to the medical factors, boys were more accident prone. Ten per cent of hospital admissions were after an accident at home and ten per cent after an accident away from home. While girls were more likely to suffer from travel sickness or abdominal pain or to have a squint, birth marks or dislocation of the hip, boys were more likely to have breathing problems, tics or habit spasms, fits or deformities or to have had speech therapy or attended a child guidance clinic.

From the parental interview they had learned that six per cent of children were no longer living with their natural parents, 9% were only children, 77% were in families of two to four children and the rest in larger families. Eleven per cent of children were living in overcrowded conditions and two thirds had moved home once, while 26% had moved two or more times. Most of the moves had been local, so only 17% of children had changed school, some more than once.

70% of children had at least 90% school attendance. 57% of parents had approached the school about their child and 26% of teachers had approached parents, more often about boys. 81% of parents wanted their children to stay on at school and 94% reported that their children had settled in school, the girls better than the boys. More girls were happy in school and more boys were more reluctant to go to school.

Parents reported that the boys had more temper tantrums and more girls had poor appetites but, otherwise, there were no significant differences between the behaviour of boys and girls.

The key associations that had been drawn from this data were that earlier starters have an advantage and that atypical home situations increase with lower class. An atypical home situation, particularly in the higher social classes, is associated with poor reading ability, especially among boys. Higher-class parents are more likely to approach school, particularly if the child is a poor reader and a boy.

In Chapter 4 The parents, the family and the child, they summarise a number of the associations the study has thrown up, noting that upper middle-class families have the smallest family size and unskilled working class families the largest.

Reading gains were most associated, in descending order of importance, with social class, family size, living in Scotland and being a girl. Arithmetic gains were most associated with social class, living in Wales, family size and being a boy. A positive social adjustment was most associated with social class, family size, being a girl and living in Scotland.

64% of parents had left school at the minimum age, with fathers among the middle classes and mothers among the working classes more likely to have stayed on at school. This in turn was associated with parental education. Whether parents had stayed on at school was less associated with reading gains and positive social adjustment than social class, family size and sex but was associated, after social class, with arithmetic gains.

Higher-class parents were more likely to approach school.

Living in a broken home did not further disadvantage children in the lower social classes but did bring some further disadvantage for children in the higher social classes.

Working mothers tended to be in the lower social classes but have smaller families and be from atypical families; whether mother worked had little effect on reading age or positive social adjustment but a similar effect to sex on arithmetic ability after social class and family size; in other words, there were no significant ill-effects from mothers working.

In Chapter 5 Family moves and housing conditions, they note that most moves were within the same area with families without a male head or from the highest and lowest social classes most likely to move. However, 62% of children who had moved remained in contact with friends with higher-class children most likely to move out of local contact. Only a fifth of children had changed school but middle-class children were more likely to change school.

On average, fifteen per cent of children lived in overcrowded conditions, with more than twice that proportion in Scotland and in the lowest social class. Children living in owner-occupied housing had the best conditions, and those living in flats and rooms the worst. Overcrowding in households with children was over twice that of all adult households.

Having amenities like hot water, a bathroom and an indoor toilet was less likely in overcrowded households, though children in Scotland had more amenities than children in Wales, even though Scotland had higher overcrowding than Wales. Children in higher-class households are more likely to have all three amenities.

Less than one per cent of households had to share cooking and 90% had their own garden or yard; only four per cent had neither.

Adding in these factors reading gains were most associated, in descending order of importance, with social class, living in Scotland, family size, amenities, tenure, sex and overcrowding. Arithmetic gains were most associated with social class, accommodation, living in Wales, tenure, amenities, sex and overcrowding. Social adjustment was most associated with social class, sex, family size, amenities, tenure, living in Scotland and overcrowding.

In Chapter 6 The utilisation of medical and other services, they report that three-quarters of parents went to infant welfare clinics and 56% to toddler clinics with middle-class parents most likely to attend. Only three-quarters of children had had the smallpox vaccine, with higher-class children more likely to have had it even though lower-class parents were less likely to object to it. Nearly all children, regardless of social class, had had the polio and diphtheria injections.

23% of children had never been to a dentist but only 12% had no teeth missing while 10% had ten or more unhealthy or missing teeth. 45% had had general anaesthetic at a dentist’s even though this was not recommended. Four per cent had received physiotherapy but less than one per cent, and twice as many boys as girls, had been to a child guidance clinic.

45% of children had been in hospital. Sixteen had died in accidents and ten had received severe disabilities after an accident; 2.9% of boys and 1.7% of girls had been in a road accident. Nine per cent had been after an accident at home and nine percent after an accident not on the road or at home, while 3.6% of boys and 2.5% of girls had suffered a concussion injury. One third of admissions had been to have their tonsils out, while 2% of boys and 1.2% of girls had had abdominal surgery. 1.8% had had a hernia with three times the number of boys to girls. Overall the lower classes made less use of the services and were disadvantaged in many ways.

In Chapter 7 Development and difficulties, the authors report that one third of babies had never breast-fed and a quarter had been on cows’ milk by the end of the first month, when 44% were still only being breast-fed. Breastfeeding was more likely to be initiated and continued by higher class mothers.

Nearly all children were able to walk at 18 months, with middle-class children most likely. Very few children soiled after four whereas eleven per cent were still bedwetting after five. Boys tended to have more problems of co-ordination/motor activity. Those children, around one in twenty, who had asthma, hayfever or eczema were more likely to have all three, to be from a lower class and to live in Wales or the south of England.

In Chapter 8 Influences on physical growth, the authors report that height was associated, in descending order, with birth order, mother’s height, increase in birth weight, social class, number of younger siblings, mother smoking during pregnancy, age of mother and being a boy.

In Chapter 9 Vision, speech and hearing, the authors report that 92% of children had good vision but the glasses dispensed did not always correct poor vision. Only 1.1% stammered or stuttered at the age of seven but six per cent were reported to have done so in past. Girls were better at speaking and fewer girls had received speech therapy but there was no social class association for the one in forty who did.

About one in twelve children had had a middle-ear infection and only 75% were able to repeat words accurately, with girls being better than boys. One in twelve had been to an audiology clinic. It had been possible to test 73% of the children with an audiometer and 80% had been found to have normal hearing, with the remainder having various levels of hearing loss. Overall 2/1,000 required special education and 1/1,000 were severely deaf.

In Chapter 10 Ability and attainment, the authors report that there were associations between social class and oral ability, awareness of the world around, creativity, copying, problem arithmetic, reading and the need for special education. Children in Scotland were significantly ahead in reading but not in arithmetic, where the results were closer to expectations from social class factors. The authors argue that the evidence pointed to maladjustment leading to backwardness in reading, rather than the other way round.

In Chapter 11 The schools, the authors explore issues surrounding the organisation of schools. Reading gains were associated, in descending order, with social class, being an early starter, sex, size of school, parental interest and class size. Why being in a smaller school had more effect than being in a smaller class puzzled the authors. Only seventeen per cent of schools had a Parent Teacher Association which was more likely in higher class areas. Meetings for parents were more likely in the south than in the north and least likely in Wales. Overall, while middle-class parents were more interested in contact, efforts to stimulate contact with working-class parents had not been successful.

In Chapter 12 Behaviour and adjustment, they report that girls were generally better behaved, though around one in ten bit their nails or sucked their thumb. At home higher-class children are better behaved but at school, upper middle-class children are less well behaved than lower middle-class children. While there tended to be more lower-class maladjusted children, maladjustment was higher among the professional than other upper middle-class children.

Lower-class children were more likely to be withdrawn, depressed, anxious about acceptance, unforthcoming. hostile to others or restless and to engage in inconsequential behaviour. Girls were more likely to be anxious about adult acceptance and less likely than boys to show the other types of behaviour.

Overall Scottish children were generally more settled and more happy at school than English children.

In Chapter 13 Children who died or suffer from serious defects, they summarise the results from Butler and Bonham (1963) before adding that 143 had died since that study.

In Chapter 14 The effect of birth-weight, gestation and other obstetric factors on disabilities at the age of seven, they report that educational backwardness was higher for early and late births, that early delivery was associated with a low ‘copying’ score and that a birth-weight in the lowest and highest 10% was associated with higher perinatal mortality. The five per cent who had had the lowest birth-weight had a handicap. Smoking increased the risk of perinatal mortality by 30% and led to lower height at the age of seven.

In Chapter 15 Social and biological influences on reading attainment and adjustment at school, they report that reading gains were associated, in descending order, with social class, birth order, number of younger siblings, sex, birth-weight, smoking in pregnancy, maternal age (older the better) and length of pregnancy. Positive social adjustment was associated with social class, sex, birth order, smoking in pregnancy, gestation, number of younger siblings, age of mother, birth-weight and maternal height.

In Chapter 16 The prediction of handicaps and an evaluation of the use of “at risk” registers, they note that only birth order, type of delivery and condition of the baby are currently considered good predictors of handicaps. But, taken together, birth order, social class, birth-weight and method of delivery predicted the need for special education, but for only half the children in need of special education.

In Chapter 17 In conclusion, the authors discuss the study and some of the methodological problems they encountered but they conclude that those who need services most use them least.


The authors’ conclusion that the welfare state did not benefit those who most needed it highlighted the dilemma that has dogged social reformers – how to ensure that services reach those who most need them. Though most children were benefiting from universal services such as education and health, not all those who could benefit from special educational help were receiving it and even more were not using all the health services available to them. Because the higher classes were more likely to use these services, their children were more likely to benefit and social class differentials were continuing to widen. Part of the problem was the reluctance of lower-class parents to engage with professionals – something which may have been reinforced by the reluctance of some professionals to engage with them (Thorpe, 1973) .

The finding that most children who moved did not lose contact with their local community meant that most would be able to maintain peer group relationships at the time when these are first developing (Ladd, 2005). The finding that children in broken homes were not disadvantaged was to be explained later by Rutter (1971), who showed that it is an unhappy home, not a broken home, that causes problems for children.

Interestingly, the evidence that smaller class sizes are less significant than being in a smaller school has been systematically ignored by governments and teaching unions but may well explain why so many children have difficulties with the move from a small primary school to a large secondary school.

The association of lower educational attainments with early and late births and with low birth-weight exemplifies an interaction between physical growth and intellectual capacity while the finding that smoking had an impact on children’s height exemplifies an interaction between the environment and a child’s physical well-being.

Perhaps more sobering was the finding that, even with all this data, it was impossible to predict more than half the children who would be handicapped. This is the obverse of the view that things in the present can be explained from the past. Since the future for fifty per cent of a group of children cannot be predicted from the present, trying to explain the present from the past may be equally unreliable. Tizard (1977) was later to find that people only looked for explanations from the past when things were going wrong in the present, not when they were going well. As Rutter (1971) showed that antisocial behaviour was associated with being in an unhappy family and that it declined once a child moved to a happier family, child care workers should not be seduced into looking into the past for explanations for problems whose causes may be in the present.


Butler, N R and Bonham, D G (1963) Perinatal mortality: the first report of the 1958 British Perinatal Mortality Survey under the auspices of the National Birthday Trust Fund Edinburgh: E & S Livingstone

Central Advisory Council for Education (England) (1967) Children and their primary schools: a report of the Central Advisory Council for Education, England (2 Vols.) London: Central Advisory Council for Education (England)

Ladd, G W (2005) Children’s peer relations and social competence: a century of progress London: Yale University Press

Pringle, M L K, Butler, N R and Davie, R (1966) 11,000 seven-year-olds: first report of the National Child Development Study (1958 cohort) London: Longmans

Rutter, M (1971) Parent-child separation: psychological effects on the children Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 12 (4), 233-260.

Thorpe, R (1973) Consumers’ Viewpoint Social Work Today 4 (3)

Tizard, B (1977) Adoption: a second chance London: Open Books See also Children Webmag January 2010

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