The Duchess of Cambridge has lent her support to a major new study that will follow the development of children born in 2021 for the next five years.
Kate met with researchers from the Children of the 2020s research project today, which will look into the impact of children’s home environments, communities, early childhood services, and their families’ social and economic circumstances on their development.
“Our early childhoods shape our adult lives, and knowing more about what impacts this critical time is fundamental to understanding what we as a society can do to improve our future health and happiness,” she said ahead of the visit to University College London’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies.
“The groundbreaking ‘Children of the 2020s’ study will highlight the significance of the first five years of life and provide insights into the most important aspects of early childhood, as well as the factors that support or hinder positive lifelong outcomes.”
“I am committed to supporting more in-depth research in this vital area, and I’m delighted to be meeting all those behind the study at this early stage,” the Duchess, who has made early childhood development a cornerstone of her public work, said.
From the age of nine months to five years, the nationally representative birth cohort study will track the holistic development of children in England.
In January 2022, researchers will begin recruiting up to 8,000 families for babies born in April, May, and June of 2021.
Professor Li Wei, director and Dean of the UCL Institute of Education, and Professor Alan Thompson, Dean of the Faculty of Brain Science, all welcomed Kate to the university.
Professor Pasco Fearon, Chair in Developmental Psychopathology and Principal Investigator of the Children of the 2020s study, then escorted Kate to the Institute of Education library.
Professor of Economics and Director of the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies Alissa Goodman listed previous birth cohort studies conducted in England in 1946, 1958, 1970, and 2000, and explained how some children from the first cohort stayed in the study well into their 70s.
“Do the families who participated in the studies get involved?” Kate inquired. Do you think the study has an invested relationship?”
“At first, it’s a study that the parents signed up for,” Professor Goodman responded, “but we’re very interested in understanding when the children become drawn into it and how they understand what their participation entails.”
Kate was then shown archival material from early childhood research dating back to the 1940s, including a 1958 “Birth Questionnaire” for new mothers.
Professor Goodman said, “We had answers to questions about who looked after the husband while the woman was in the hospital.”
“Oh, things were different back then!” exclaimed the Duchess.
Questions about pregnant women’s smoking habits were also included in the survey.
Researchers were able to track the impact of smoking during pregnancy on a baby’s birth weight and the long-term effects it had on a child’s life thanks to the responses, which eventually led to a public health campaign to encourage women not to smoke while pregnant.
“It wasn’t clear whether or not that was important, so it [the question] was thrown in at the last minute and then analysed later.” Professor Goodman explained that “about a third of women reported smoking during pregnancy, and it was from that question that more research on the effects of smoking on the baby relating to cognitive development and other issues in later life” arose.
The Department for Education commissioned and funded the Children of the 2020s study, which is being conducted by the University’s Faculty of Brain Sciences and the Institute of Education.
Researchers want to know how a variety of factors influence children’s social, cognitive, and early language development, as well as their mental health and school readiness.
They also want to figure out when developmental gaps emerge and what more can be done to help disadvantaged families.
Kate was then introduced to Tanya McCormack, the Department of Education’s head of early years, schools, and send analysis and research (EYSSAR), and Simon Bailey, the department’s senior research officer.
Graphs charting brain development from early childhood to early adulthood were shown to the Duchess during a roundtable discussion, demonstrating how the environment plays a crucial role in brain development and how a higher socio-economic status correlates to a greater amount of grey matter in a young child’s brain.
Another slide detailed how the study would examine parental mental health, trauma, life events, stressors, and regional and neighbourhood characteristics in relation to child development.
“Which countries do we believe are leading on this?” she inquired. Which countries have a successful model from which we could learn?”
“I have to say, the United Kingdom is not bad,” Professor Fearon responded. For young children, we have some fantastic programmes.”
“We are trying to think more about prevention rather than intervention,” he told the Duchess, referring to Australia’s focus on prevention.
“Are there any other cohort studies from around the world that we can learn from?” Kate wondered.
“There have been quite a few studies around trauma, but it’s hard to measure the positive influences on early childhood,” she said when told there were similar studies in Scotland, Ireland, and across Europe. I suppose that’s what this research will begin to do.”
The Duchess also told researchers that after looking back four generations in her own family tree, she had noticed the impact of social issues closer to home.
Professor Goodman later explained, “The conversation was about how you can see big changes in society and how much that’s affected the experiences of different generations.”
“Intergenerational patterns of inequality are very rigid and difficult to hack,” Professor Fearon added. We were discussing in the meeting what the key points of opportunity are for disrupting generational patterns and achieving a better outcome for people who may have had a history of really bad experiences.”
“We’ve met before, she came to UCL once before, and I’ve been following the work of the Royal Foundation for some time, so I feel like we share a very common objective to really focus in on the early years to support children’s development,” he said of the Duchess.
“It’s just a pleasure to discuss it because we’re speaking the same language and working toward the same goal.”
“She recognises the value of good evidence and recognises that it can be scarce in the early years, making the case for better support for families with young children and babies much more difficult.
“She asks the most pertinent questions, and she knows the area extremely well, which is quite impressive given the amount of work she has to do.
“Her extensive knowledge demonstrates that she is genuinely interested in the subject.” It’s almost as if I’m conversing with a colleague.”
Kate, who launched The Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood in June, will participate in more research engagements in the future.
“We were very impressed with her interest and knowledge,” Professor Goodman continued, “and hopefully she’ll come back to see how we’re doing, that would be amazing.”
Throughout her royal career, the Duchess has focused on how early childhood experiences can lead to adulthood difficulties such as addiction, family breakdown, poor mental health, suicide, and homelessness.
She hopes to highlight how early experiences shape the developing brain and why positive relationships, environments, and experiences are so important during this period of childhood through the Centre for Early Childhood.
It will promote and commission research to increase knowledge and share best practise; collaborate on new solutions with people from the private, public, and voluntary sectors; and raise awareness and inspire action to drive real, positive change in the early years.
The Duchess of Cornwall wore a Zara repeat checked dress with a pussy-bow collar for her outing. She accessorised with her Mappin & Webb Empress earrings and wore her grey Hugo Boss pumps with the outfit.