World insight: Researchers must take their work beyond the developed world

Studies of childhood development demonstrate the value of research outside high-income countries, says Martin Hall

January 8, 2016

It is well known that educational opportunities are shaped by a child’s experiences in infancy. This extends through to higher education. 

Studies in the UK, for example, have consistently shown that where a person is born and spends their early years shapes the full reach of their journey through education. Across the world, poor people have to work far harder than those who may have lesser innate abilities but who are born into privilege.

Given the persistence of income inequality, along with associated economic and political factors, research-based studies are important, and particularly so when they underpin practical, affordable and effective interventions. One such study – a partnership between the University of Reading in England and Stellenbosch University in South Africa – has shown how book-sharing between an infant and a caregiver can be used by those living in poverty to advance the cognitive development of their children.

The Stellenbosch-Reading study was carried out in Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town with high levels of poverty, crime and unemployment. In a randomised controlled trial, subsequently published in the Journal of Child Psychology, caregivers (mothers, fathers, grandparents and neighbours) with infants aged between 14 and 16 months were first trained in “book-sharing”.

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Book-sharing is interactive reading that builds a child’s command of language through labelling pictures, questioning and commenting. Such “decontextualised talk” has been shown to extend beyond the pages of the book itself, building new and previously unfamiliar concepts. 

The research showed that those infants who then, following the training session, regularly took part in book-sharing with their caregivers in the nine weeks of the study showed substantial improvements in their cognitive abilities. The conclusion: “in societies where there is no or little culture of book sharing, and no alternative form of early interpersonal engagement which could serve an equivalent educative function, the introduction of dialogic book sharing interventions could be of profound benefit to child intellectual development”.

Peter Cooper, from Reading’s School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences (and one of the principal investigators in the Cape Town study), emphasises the enthusiasm with which adults, introduced to book-sharing for the first time in the project’s training programme, adopted this form of interaction as part of their daily routines with the infant children in their care.

Remarkably, the Khayelitsha project appears to be one of only three studies of its kind in low- or middle-income countries (the others are Mexico and Bangladesh), and the first to use a randomised control methodology to test the efficacy of book-sharing in such contexts. In contrast, such early childhood interactions have been repeatedly studied in high-income countries. 

As Lynne Murray, one of the paper’s authors, comments: “This lack is a shameful reflection on our ethnocentrism as researchers, since we have largely worked with populations that are easy for us to access”. Murray points out that 95 per cent of published psychological research is from high income Western countries, “from a small, skewed fraction of the world’s population. This striking imbalance is beginning to be addressed, not before time.”

Following the success of the work in Khayelitsha, the project is now being widened to Lesotho.

While it is estimated that more than 200 million children in low- and middle-income countries are failing to achieve their educational potential because of poverty, inequalities and their consequences are not the preserve of the global South. Inequality and relative poverty are trenchant features of highly developed economies as well; the Child Action Poverty Group estimates that 3.7 million (28 per cent) of children in the UK currently live in poverty.

It is probable that in many of these households, as in Khayelitsha, the daily priorities of survival result in infants lacking the necessary stimulation for cognitive development. Case studies from places such as Cape Town, Mexico, Bangladesh and Lesotho show how simple, effective and low-cost interventions can be put in place.

Early childhood learning may seem a long way from university admissions and widening participation. But longitudinal studies increasingly show that appropriate and informed interventions throughout a person’s formative years can make a critical difference.  For example, the Sutton Trust’s Social 2015 Mobility Index showed sharp variations of attainment across areas with similarly low household income in the UK. These differences are attributed to the varying quality of schooling.

“By measuring indicators from the early years through school and university access to professional life, the Index warns us that geographical inequalities exist at every stage of the educational process. Even before primary school, 72 per cent of disadvantaged toddlers in Lewisham Deptford achieve a good level of development compared to only 19 per cent in Kenilworth and Southam. At GCSE, a child from a low-income household in Bethnal Green and Bow, the constituency with the highest proportion of disadvantaged pupils (65.5 per cent), is almost four times as likely to get five or more A*-C grades than their peer living in Barnsley Central.”

Inequality is a persistent and uncomfortable reality that is unlikely to ameliorate in our lifetimes. But its consequences can be overcome by practical interventions founded on sound research, as the collaboration between the universities of Reading and Stellenbosch has shown in southern Africa.

Martin Hall is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Salford. He is now based in South Africa.

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