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IOE at 120: Britain’s birth cohort studies find their home, 1992-2002

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 26 October 2022

A selection of birthday cards sent to members of the 1958 and 1970 British birth cohort studies in the 1990s.

A selection of birthday cards sent to members of the 1958 and 1970 British birth cohort studies in the 1990s.

This blog is the 10th in a series of 12 exploring each decade in IOE’s history in the context of the education and society of the times. Find out more about our 120th anniversary celebrations on our website, and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn to keep up with everything that’s happening. 

Meghan Rainsberry.

The 1990s was a decade in history when two great pillars of British social science came together – IOE, and the British birth cohort studies.

Following generations of Britons from cradle to grave, birth cohort studies have been a unique feature of medical and social science in Britain since the original birth cohort study was established in 1946. It was a first for Britain, and the world.

Today, the successors of the 1946 cohort are all housed together at the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies: the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study. The original 1946 cohort is not far away, just a few doors down at the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL.

You’ll often hear the studies referred to as the ‘jewels in the crown’ of British social science. But if you wind the clock back to the 1980s, they were not always treated with such reverence. As Peter Mortimore noted in his blog, the 1980s saw many in higher education and social research struggle for survival. The birth cohorts were no exception.

The precarious funding environment for social research saw the 1958 and 1970 cohorts survive on a patchwork of funding, and with the dedication of a small but committed staff working month-to-month contracts. Importantly, 1980s Britain had little scientific infrastructure to exploit the true potential of the data resources that were accumulating.

By the early 1990s, Professor John Bynner had taken up the reins of both the 1958 and 1970 cohorts. He and his deputy, Professor Heather Joshi, led the studies from the Social Science Research Unit at City University, and a flourishing new era for the studies began.

Technological advancements open new doors for data science

The 1990s brought rapid advances in personal computing and other technological innovations. This meant everything for data science, and the cohorts.

Gone were the days of recording data on punch cards and analysing them on a computer that filled an entire room. Previously unimaginable forms of statistical analysis suddenly became a reality. The possibilities for tracking social change over time and across generations using cohort data seemed endless.

This technological revolution also shifted the winds in social science funding. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) became keenly interested in putting the birth cohort studies on a stable footing, and opening up their treasure troves of data for all to use.

1998: The cohorts arrive at the IOE

By the late 1990s, Professors Bynner and Joshi were looking for a new home for the studies that could help take them to the next level. They wanted an institution that would share their ambition for the cohorts – scientifically independent resources that supported research across disciplines, and to the benefit of wider society.

IOE, under the direction of Peter Mortimore, answered that call. The Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) was established at IOE in October 1998. The 1958 and 1970 cohorts had finally found a home where they could thrive, and the beginnings of consolidated, long-term funding began.

The insights of the cohorts are unleashed

In their new home at IOE, analysis of cohort data proliferated, and policy-relevant research blossomed. Professor Bynner had previously deposited the 1958 and 1970 cohort data at the UK Data Archive in Essex, and he continued to develop an infrastructure of support at IOE so researchers around the world could find and use the data more easily.

The CLS team also began planning future data collections across multiple cohorts, to facilitate generational comparisons. In 1999-2000, CLS ran a joint survey of the 1958 and 1970 cohorts, who were 42 years and 30 years respectively. The team running the 1946 cohort also collected data from their participants at this time, offering for the first time an opportunity to directly compare all three cohorts. Professor Bynner and his colleagues went on to publish Changing Britain, Changing Lives in 2003, a seminal book from IOE Press that documented major social changes in the UK, from the expansion of educational opportunities, to postponed marriage and childbearing, to an increasing polarisation of rich and poor.

‘Skills for life’ and the impact of the cohorts on government strategy

Professor Bynner and his team also established two new research centres at IOE: the Centre for the Wider Benefits of Learning, and the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Numeracy and Literacy. They were pioneers of policy engagement, leveraging the insights from the cohorts to shape social policy.

At around the same time, the New Labour government brought political recognition of the value of cohort evidence for policy development. One critical example was adult basic skills.

Professor Bynner and his colleagues had noticed something worrying in their analysis of the Age 23 Survey of the 1958 cohort: 13% of these young adults had trouble with reading, writing and simple maths. The problem appeared persistent – 12% of the 1970 cohort also had low literacy and numeracy skills.

The researchers mined the extensive datasets for more answers. Adults with low basic skills spent more of their adult life in unemployment, were less likely to own a home, were at greater risk of ill health, and had low self-esteem. They were also less politically engaged.

Professor Bynner took the findings to the Head of Skills for Life Strategy at the then Department for Education and Skills. The body of evidence from the cohorts went on to underpin the Government’s Skills for Life programme, which helped more than 5.7 million adult learners between 2001 and 2008.

Little did Professors Bynner and Joshi know, but Tony Blair’s Government was also about to have a big impact on them.

2001: the turn of the century marked with a new birth cohort

In 1999, the Cabinet Office made a decision: there should be another national birth cohort to mark the new millennium.

There hadn’t been a new national birth cohort study in 30 years, and suddenly, one needed to be set up in a matter of months. The ESRC put out the funding call in February 2000, and after a competitive bidding process, CLS won the work. By June 2001, the Millennium Cohort Study was in the field. More than 19,000 babies born from September 2000 to February 2002 took part in the first sweep of data collection when they were 9 months old. The study has since grown into a highly influential cohort, and inspired similar studies across the world.

Cohorts and the IOE today

To date, more than 5,500 scientific papers based on data from IOE’s cohorts have been published. This impressive scientific evidence base spans the fields of economics, education, sociology, psychology, epidemiology, genetics, epigenetics, geography and demography. The findings have informed policy on issues as far reaching as educational and social inequalities, mental health, obesity, and now the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

CLS and the cohorts continue to thrive at IOE, under the watchful eyes of the now Professors Emeriti Bynner and Joshi, and the current leadership of Professor Alissa Goodman and a new generation of study directors. In 2015, CLS added a new cohort to its portfolio. Known among researchers as ‘the missing generation’, Next Steps, a study of people born in England in 1989-90, originated in the Department for Education as a study of transitions from compulsory schooling to adult life. In 2021, CLS and its collaborators won funding to test the feasibility of a new UK-wide birth cohort study. If successful, it will be the first such study in over 20 years.

In October 2022, Professor Joshi was announced as a finalist for the ESRC’s John Hills Impact Prize in recognition of her profound influence on social science and policy over the past 40 years. An achievement, she insists, that is not hers alone, but a testament to the hundreds of scientists, dozens of professional staff, and tens of thousands of study members who have made the research possible.


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