A major long-term study will provide important data on both UK education and growing up during and after the pandemic

We are surrounded by ‘pop’ surveys – headline-grabbing findings that make lively news or comment pieces but often don’t give us much in the way of solid information. Good then to have a major longitudinal study into education, beginning this year and designed to provide a solid base of evidence about what it’s like to grow up in the here and now.

‘Five to Twelve’ is being undertaken by the National Centre for Social Research and has been commissioned and funded by the Department for Education (DfE). There will also be collaboration with the National Children’s Bureau and National Foundation for Educational Research. The study of primary and early secondary education runs over a five-year period. Importantly, data from the longitudinal study will be gathered from independent schools as well as the state sector.

Longitudinal studies are, of course, a very different beast from their snapshot cousins as Jules Allen, Senior Researcher on ‘Five to Twelve’, explains. “The main benefit of a longitudinal study as opposed to a single wave (which we call a cross-sectional study) is that, because we collect data at repeated intervals over time, researchers who use the dataset can identify developments and changes in the population that we’re studying,” she says. “You can look at causation rather than just correlation.”

Growing evidence – a major new study into education
Data is being gathered from parents, children and schools to give a rounded insight into this critical phase of childhood

Gathering data

Longitudinal studies are a major undertaking and require careful design. “We definitely do not start these studies with what we want to say, we start with what we want to find,” says Jules Allen. What is under the spotlight here is understanding more about education outcomes and inequalities – why some children do better than others and the multiple factors shaping these outcomes.

The groundwork for ‘Five to Twelve’ began in summer 2022 and a full ‘dress rehearsal’ took place in spring 2023. While many longitudinal studies begin by randomly sampling postcode files (the central database of UK addresses, the target here is specific – children in schools – so both studies began with the DfE central database of all children in school. That database was then used to randomly select children via their schools. As the study parameters include insights into the independent sector (where there’s no such central database), the research team asked independent schools to opt in to the survey. From there, they were able to gather a random sample of pupils for the study.

For ‘Five to Twelve’ participating children have annual cognitive exercises until Year 6, when they respond to questions. For their parents, there’s a mix of face-to-face and online or phone surveys annually. Teachers are asked for input too, with an additional element where headteachers respond to describe school ethos, culture, and so on.

“Importantly, the longitudinal study will span not just the state sector, but independent schools”

This body of evidence gathered over time requires buy-in and commitment from all those involved – parents, pupils, teachers and schools. Jules Allen says they are delighted so many have responded so positively. “People are quite enthusiastic. In particular, we’ve found that children really enjoy the cognitive exercises. And teachers too – despite how busy they are – we have found that they respond to the survey.”

We should be grateful to these thousands of participants for their time because their input will provide a seam of really useful data, made available in the public domain. It might be used to draw comparison with earlier or later longitudinal surveys of education to see differences over time, or to gain closer insights into different educational experiences – and educational inequalities. There will be valuable insights into today’s front-of-mind concerns, such as wellbeing.

Then there is the impact of Covid – never far from the surface in any current debate. “All of the children who will participate will have lived through Covid,” says Jules Allen. “Although we can’t compare Covid with past studies, we can look at outcomes and differences.”

In a world of ‘pop’ surveys, such carefully gathered study results will surely be worth the time and effort involved. In a little over five years’ time, these findings will shine a light on the longer-term impact of pandemic restrictions on our children, informing future thinking on how to manage both ingrained educational inequality and unforeseen events that impact our young people’s access to physical school.

Five to twelve fivetotwelve.org.uk

Further reading: The right to play outside where you live