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20 Apr 2015

The Young Lives Longitudinal Study – Methodological Considerations By Angela W Little

By Angela W Little, UCL Institute of Education.

younglivesIn 2000 the Millennium Declaration issued by the United Nations identified poverty reduction as a main development goal for the twenty-first century. More specific goals were set by the international community in 2002, including the achievement of universal primary education by 2015. It was in this context that the Young Lives study was established in 2001. Through extensive household, school and community surveys, the Young Lives study follows 12,000 children from two age cohorts in Ethiopia, India, Peru and the state of Andhra Pradesh in India.  These comprise 2,000 children in each country born in 2001-02 (the younger cohort) and 1,000 children born in 1994-95 (the older cohort). The Young Lives study offers insights on the causes and consequences of poverty and the mediating roles, inter alia, education, health, economic conditions, community and cultural circumstances.

Young Lives offers a unique longitudinal data set derived from linked household and school surveys and embedded small scale qualitative studies. It employs longitudinal designs of two types. The first involves repeated measures of child development (e.g. cognitive development, health, nutrition and social support), measured in their homes and gathered alongside key household and community-level development indicators and in their schools. Longitudinal studies aid our understanding of causation, prognosis, stability, change and development. By studying two age cohorts, longitudinally and simultaneously, cohort and time-period effects can be separated and extensive sub group analysis can be conducted within cohorts, across cohorts and across countries. The second involves repeated measures of learning achievement during the school year in a school survey. This design focuses on the school experience of the Young Lives children within a period of nine months during which school and teacher-level influences may be considered largely ‘fixed’. In the presence of extensive longitudinal data on children’s early development and home backgrounds, this enables us to explore the influence of a range of in-school and out-of-school factors that explain learning progress during a school grade with well-defined curricular content.

A recent special issue of the Oxford Review of Education School quality counts: evidence from developing countries brings together a number of studies of the role of education in mediating the causes and consequences of poverty (Little and Rolleston, 2014). Methodological, logistical and ethical challenges are addressed. These include ensuring the integrity of the panel data and cohort, maintaining an appropriate degree of consistency across countries in terms of design and measurement, without compromising policy relevance at the national level, and balancing the sometimes competing demands for cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence (Boyden and James, 2014). In the context of Andhra Pradesh Singh (2014) shows how attendance in private and public pre-schools influences the receptive vocabulary and quantitative skills of children by the time they are ready to enter primary school, even after controlling for home background. In Peru the relationships between socioeconomic status (SES) measured at the age of 1, achievement in mathematics 10 years later and opportunities to learn (the number of hours of mathematics classes per year, curriculum coverage, the quality of teachers’ feedback, and level of cognitive demand of learning tasks) are explored. Cueto, Guerrero, Leon, Zapata and Freire (2014) demonstrate that home background at age 1 not only predicts of achievement at age 10 but also the number of exercises attempted by children.  The findings point to a highly unequal educational system in which relatively poor children have fewer opportunities to learn in school, pointing to an important area of policy concern regarding equity.  In Andhra Pradesh, James and Woodhead (2014) explore changes over time in the way that parents make school choices for their children. Using a combination of quantitative and qualitative data from Andhra Pradesh they demonstrate the dynamic and diverse character of school choice and an increasing propensity of children to change schools during the early primary school years – from government to private schools, private to private, government to government and private to government. From Ethiopia Frost and Little (2014) explore student learning practices in 776 mathematics classes in relation to the official prescription that 30% of time should be spent on student-centred and no more than 70% on teacher-centred activity. The data reveal that the 30% target was not reached and that more time was spent ‘off task’ than on ‘on task’ than in student-centred activity. Students were more likely to be ‘on task’ rather than ‘off task’ if taught by a female teacher with a diploma or a degree, a teacher who had not been absent recently or  a teacher who had received supervision within the last four weeks. Physical resources at school and classroom level were of less importance than the quality of teachers. From Vietnam Rolleston and Krutikova (2014) examine the effects of home background, school resources and class-peers’ backgrounds on student learning progress during one school year, when teacher and school factors are largely held constant. They demonstrate considerable equality of opportunity in the Vietnamese system in terms of basic standards offered by schools. However students from more advantaged backgrounds have better access to internet technology in schools and are more likely to follow paid extra classes. Students from disadvantaged home backgrounds perform less well, but there is only weak evidence that schooling contributes substantially to a widening of achievement gaps during Grade 5. In the final paper Rolleston (2014) explores how learning gaps evolve over time between different social groups in each of the four countries and how education systems vary in their efficacy in promoting learning and equity. Importantly the paper demonstrates the impact of years of school experience on learning outcomes.

As these papers demonstrate, at a time when the focus of much international education research and intervention is shifting to school quality, it is important to retain a focus on the learning effects of school attendance per se, especially in those countries where enrolment in the basic cycle of education is not yet universal. By exploiting the methodological advantages of longitudinal studies Young Lives demonstrate the importance of both the quantity and quality of the schooling experience for learning outcomes.

Angela Little is Emerita Professor, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. Email:

This blog is based on a paper presented at the 59th Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), Washington, DC., 8-13 March 2015.

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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