New report on the development of 5 year olds in England

Press Release

Tuesday 1 December 2020

New analysis of data collected by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has identified the most significant factors affecting the development of five-year-old children across England. Today’s report, published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), examines the data collected by the International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS) as organised by OECD.

IELS showed that five-year-old children in England achieved similar development to their peers in Estonia – the highest-performing OECD country in the PISA study at age 15 – and greater development than children in the USA.

The analysis shows us where there are development gaps, and identifies which groups of children may need additional support.

NFER was contracted by the Department for Education to analyse this data and report on their findings. The research examines early learning outcomes in emergent literacy, emergent numeracy, self-regulation, social-emotional development and physical development. These key aspects combine to present a holistic picture of young children’s development.

IELS involved children taking part in a range of interactive stories and games. Teachers and parents were also asked to assess children’s development in some aspects of social-emotional development.


Key findings from the report are outlined below:

Low birthweight was associated with lower physical and cognitive development, but not social and emotional development
Children whose parents had reported them as having low birthweight had statistically significantly lower levels of emergent literacy, emergent numeracy, working memory and physical development at age 5 compared to their peers. The largest development gap was found in physical development – equivalent to approximately nine months, while these children were also three months’ behind in emergent literacy, and four months’ behind in emergent numeracy and working memory.

However, low birthweight was not significantly related to development in any of the social-emotional measures in IELS such as trust or emotion identification.

Children’s physical development is significantly related to deprivation and gender
Children who were eligible for free school meals were on average eight months’ behind their more affluent peers for physical development. Five-year-old girls were on average nine months’ ahead of boys.

Children’s development across different outcomes at five-years-old is highly interrelated
Five-year-old children with greater development in early literacy (including listening comprehension, phonological awareness and vocabulary) are more likely to have similarly strong development in early numeracy. There were also strong correlations between high development in mental flexibility and working memory, while physical development was strongly correlated with prosocial behaviour and Trust.  The fact that there were significant relationships between children’s development in different areas suggests that a whole range of different areas of learning are important for children’s development.

Children with English as an additional language can be at risk in certain aspects of their development
Children with English as an additional language were approximately eight months’ behind their peers for emergent literacy and three months’ behind their peers for emergent numeracy. In addition, they were approximately three months’ behind their peers in mental flexibility, working memory and emotion attribution. However, they showed similar development to their peers in inhibition, non-disruptive behaviour and physical development.  

Persistence is associated with early development
Children whose teachers rated them as ‘often or always’ persistent at the age of five were more than 12 months’ ahead of their peers rated as ‘rarely or never’ persistent for physical development. These children were also approximately 11 months’ ahead of their peers in emergent literacy, and 8 months’ ahead in emergent numeracy.

There are a range of simple activities parents can do to aid their children’s development
The research showed that children who drew or painted at home three or four times a week showed some evidence of better physical development than those that did not, equivalent to five months’ difference. Physical development covers gross motor skills, such as the ability to run and jump, as well as fine motor skills, such as using scissors to cut around a shape or putting on a coat without help. IELS also provides evidence of other simple activities parents can do to aid their children’s development at age 5, including reading to them every day, making sure they have access to children’s books at home, having regular conversations about their feelings, and being involved with their school.

Caroline Sharp, Research Director at NFER, said:
“As we count the cost of the pandemic on children’s development and wellbeing, these findings feel particularly important. We know that too many pupils, particularly the most deprived, have been so adversely affected over the past year, and this research gives new insight into how we can best support those most at risk.

“In particular, this research demonstrates the impact that low birthweight can have on young children’s development across a number of measures. This new information shows that we must raise awareness of this issue, monitor the development of children with low birthweight for longer, and provide additional support for their development in these areas.”