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Evidence-based policy: the long and short of it

Posted on 06 June 2011 by Paul Bradshaw, Head of ScotCen .
Tags: Evidence-based policy, GUS, Growing up in Scotland, ScotCen, Scottish Centre for Social Research, longitudinal research

“War may always be prevented, by those who adopt the principles of peace, being at all times prepared to resist injustice and oppression; and this preparation may easily be effected by wise arrangements in the education of the young.”

Robert Owen, Essays on the Principle of the Formation of Human Character (1813)

When Robert Owen, an industrialist and social reformer, pioneered early education over 200 years ago, he didn’t develop his plans on the basis of research evidence. He just had a fundamental belief in the value of education for everyone, particularly the young. Yet two centuries later, Owen’s sentiments still very much ring true. The importance of the effect of early experiences on later outcomes is widely acknowledged. It’s featured heavily in a series of recent high profile Scottish and UK government reports and in numerous research articles. Owen’s comments could have sat comfortably in Susan Deacon’s or Graham Allen’s reports on the importance of early intervention, in Frank Field’s review on poverty and life chances, or Michael Marmot’s report on health inequalities. The difference is that these reports are grounded in, and present, considerable evidence generated by robust longitudinal research.

Today sees the publication of four new reports from the Growing Up in Scotland study (GUS), a longitudinal research project which is tracking the lives of around 14,000 children currently being born in Scotland or born in the last 10 years. GUS is one of a limited – but ever-growing – number of large-scale longitudinal cohort studies being run in the UK, and the world. Birth cohort studies represent just one type of longitudinal project. In the broadest sense, longitudinal research involves the follow up of change over time – amongst households, institutions, even nations - but they tend to focus on individuals. From birth through to middle-age and beyond, the population of interest, and the stage at which inquiry starts, varies.

The UK has a particularly rich and longstanding history of cohort research and currently hosts a wide range of studies across geographies and populations. The British birth cohorts of 1946, 1958, 1970 and the Millennium have UK-wide samples based on birth dates. There are age cohort studies that begin at particular stages in life, commonly youth – like the Youth Cohort study and the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime – and later life. Indeed, cohort studies examining the later period of life, such as the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, are run in most European countries. And there are also panel studies, area studies and studies which rely solely on administrative data.

So what’s the appeal? Longitudinal research is unique because it helps us understand development and change over time. It sheds light on causes and processes which lead to change and to particular outcomes. The positive impact of breastfeeding; the consequences of smoking during pregnancy – indeed smoking at all - patterns of social mobility and the timing of family poverty spells are examples of the insights offered by this form of research. Longitudinal studies have made a vital contribution to understanding what affects well-being. This evidence has directly influenced the development of government policy.

The GUS reports published today demonstrate the distinctive ability of longitudinal data: links are identified between children’s early experiences of parenting and their health at age 5; pre-school trajectories of change in cognitive ability for children in different social groups are examined; patterns of service use by parents and the informal support they receive are mapped over the early years of their child’s life; and the influence of significant events, like job loss and parental separation, on drivers of negative child outcomes are explored.

We can discover the full, complex and ever changing picture of human life, and determine pathways through it. So it’s small wonder that governments are increasingly recognising the value of evidence drawn from longitudinal data. It’s what we’ve been longing for and I’m sure Owen would approve.

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