A reassessment of socio-economic gradients in child cognitive development using Growth Mixture Models

Katie Sindall, Patrick Sturgis, Fiona Steele, George Leckie, Robert French

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Recent social and educational policy debate in the UK has been strongly influenced by studies which have found children’s cognitive developmental trajectories to be significantly affected by the socio-economic status of the households into which they were born. Most notably, using data from the 1970 British cohort study, Feinstein (2003) concluded that children from less advantaged backgrounds who scored high on cognitive tests at 22 months had been overtaken by age 5 by children from more advantaged origins, who had scored lower on the baseline test. However, questions have been raised about the methodological robustness of these studies, particularly the possibility that their key findings are, at least in part, an artefact of regression to the mean. In this paper, we assess Growth Mixture Models as an alternative approach for identifying and explaining cognitive developmental trajectories in children which is robust to regression to the mean. We apply this approach to longitudinal children’s cognitive test score data from the Millennium Cohort Study. Our findings provide no support for the contention that more initially able children from disadvantaged backgrounds are ‘over-taken’ in cognitive development by less initially able children from more affluent backgrounds. We do, however, find that cognitive developmental trajectories are related to socio-economic status, such that initial class-based inequalities increase over time.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)283-305
Number of pages23
JournalLongitudinal and Life Course Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019

Structured keywords

  • SoE Centre for Multilevel Modelling


  • UK Millennium Cohort Study;
  • cognitive ability
  • growth mixture models
  • regression to the mean
  • social mobility


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