Key findings

Characteristics of children and their families

Child development

Child health

Parenting and support


Early experiences of primary school

Child wellbeing at age 7


Characteristics of children and their families

  • Of babies born between March 2010 and February 2011, 45% were born to a mother in their twenties. 44% were born to a mother in her thirties. 6% of mothers were aged under 20 at the time of their child’s birth and 4% were aged 40 or older.
  • The proportion of babies born to teenage mothers has decreased over the last 6 years from 8% to 6%. During the same period, the proportion of babies born to mothers aged 40 or over increased from 3% to 4%.
  • At 10 months of age, 79% of babies live with two parents while 21% live with a single parent.
  • At this time, 50% of parents were married, 29% were cohabiting, 19% were single and 2% were either separated or divorced. Over the last 6 years, the proportion of married parents has decreased from 54% while the proportion of parents cohabiting has increased from 26%.
  • 57% of mothers of 10 month old babies in 2011/12 were employed (including those on maternity leave). 40% of mothers work part-time, 17% work full-time and 43% are not in paid employment.
  • After taking account of inflation, there was little change in family incomes between 2005/06 and 2011/12. In 2011/12, 37% of parents said that, in the last year, their financial situation had got worse. For 15% it had got better and for 49% it had stayed the same.
  • More than half (53%) of families with a 10 month old baby in 2011/12 had no savings or investments
  • 5% of children are from an ethnic minority background.
  • Over half (53%) of babies aged 10 months have 4 grandparents alive. One third have between 1 and 3 grandparents. 13% of parents say that their children have more than 4 grandparents, as a result of re-partnering (of parents and/or grandparents).


Child development

Cognitive development

  •  Children who experience a wide range of activities like being read to, singing nursery rhymes and drawing, from an early age score higher in cognitive ability tests at age 3 than children with less experience of these activities.
  • Children from less advantaged households are less likely to experience a wide range of ‘home learning’ activities than children from more advantaged households.
  • Experiencing a wide range of activities from an early age does have an impact on cognitive development and can moderate – although by no means eradicate – the effects of socio-demographic advantage.
  • The variations in cognitive ability (vocabulary and problem solving) by socio-demographic backgrounds found at age 3 persist at age 5. On average, children from more advantaged backgrounds have higher vocabulary and problem solving abilities at ages 3 and 5 than children from less advantaged backgrounds.
  • The largest differences in ability are between children whose parents have higher and lower educational qualifications. At age 5, compared with children whose parents have no qualifications, those with a degree-educated parent are around 18 months ahead on vocabulary and around 13 months ahead on problem solving.
  • Changes in vocabulary ability in the pre-school period between the ages of 3 and 5 years are more strongly related to aspects of the child’s home environment and the choices and behaviours of parents than external factors like pre-school education.
  • Amongst children whose parents had lower levels of education, those who had strong early attachment with their mother, had better early language development and more regularly experienced parent-child activities like reading, singing and playing games were more likely to show a greater improvement in their cognitive ability in the pre-school period than those children who did not have these experiences.

Social, emotional and behavioural development

  • Social, emotional and behavioural development is measured using the SDQ (Strengths and Weaknesses Questionnaire) a brief behavioural screening tool designed for use with 3-16 year olds.
  • At the point of entry to primary school, most children in Scotland do not have any social, emotional or behavioural difficulties as measured by the SDQ.
  • Conduct problems are the most common type of difficulty amongst children at age 5, experienced by 27% of children. 17% of children experience difficulties with hyperactivity while 15% are reported to have peer relationship problems. 10% of children have emotional difficulties at age 5. These proportions broadly match that which is expected from any community population.

Child health

  •  95% of children aged 10 months in 2011/12 were described by their main carers as having ‘very good’ or ‘good’ health. This proportion has remained stable since 2005/06.
  • 12% of babies in 2011/12 had a long-term condition or illness. Boys (13%) are more likely than girls to have girls (10%) to have a long-term condition or illness.
  • 5% of parents in 2011/12 reported some or a lot of concerns about their child’s development, learning or behaviour. This is  a reduction from 8% in 2005/06. 9% of parents in the lowest household income group had concerns compared with 4% in the two highest income groups.

Health inequalities in the early years

  • Exposure to risk factors for poor child health varies considerably in relation to levels of deprivation and socioeconomic characteristics. At age 4, children living in low income households and/or in the most deprived areas are more likely to have a mother who smokes (including during pregnancy), a mother with a long-term health problem or disability, to have never been breastfed, to have a poor diet and to have low levels of physical activity.
  • At age 4, variations in child health outcomes are less evident than the variations in risk factors, though negative outcomes may become more apparent in later life. Behavioural, psychosocial and linguistic problems showed more inequalities than physical health problems such as poor general health.
  • The factors associated with ‘resilience’, or avoiding negative health outcomes, were having an older mother; having a mother with no long-term health problems; positive parental attitudes towards seeking advice and support; an enriching ‘home learning environment’; living in a household with at least one adult in full-time work and satisfaction with local services and neighbourhood.

 Parenting and children’s health

  • Low overall parenting skills were associated with a number of poorer health outcomes and health behaviours amongst children. In particular, high levels of parent-child conflict were associated with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (although the direction of the relationship is not clear). Low parental supervision was associated with poor general health, limiting long-term illness and behavioural difficulties. Children experiencing a high level of mother-child activities and rules at home were more likely to exhibit healthy behaviours than those who took part in few activities or had few rules at home.
  • A measure of ‘family adversity’ was used to examine the relationships between adversity, parenting and social inequalities in health. In general, children living in families experiencing greater adversity were more likely to experience poor health and less healthy behaviours. Parenting behaviours also varied according to family circumstances and the findings show that differences in parenting account for part of the health inequalities linked to family adversity.
  • The findings suggest that policy measures to strengthen parenting skills may benefit child physical and mental health.  The health benefits of better parenting appear greatest for families experiencing higher levels of family adversity. However, given that day-to-day parenting accounts for some, but not all of the health inequalities linked to family adversity, and family adversity remained associated with poorer health outcomes after taking account of variations in parenting, programmes to improve parenting skills are likely to form only part of the solution to a reduction of social inequalities in health.

Overweight, obesity and physical activity

  •  During 2010/11, at age 6, 22% of children in Scotland were overweight or obese. 9% of children were obese.
  • 15% of children were physically active for less than the recommended 60 minutes each day.
  • 31% of children  had 3 or more hours of screen time on a typical weekday (screen time is time spent watching TV and using computers or games consoles at home)
  • The factors associated with a child being overweight or obese were: mothers being overweight or obese, frequent snacking on sweets or crisps as a toddler, skipping breakfast, not eating the main meal in a dining area of the home and low parental supervision generally. Mothers having a long term health problem and mothers classing their local neighbourhood as not ‘child friendly’ were also risk factors for children being overweight or obese at age 6.
  • Neither low physical activity or high ‘screen time’ were associated with overweight or obesity. This is a common finding in studies looking at children at this age.
  • The factors associated with children having low physical activity (less than 1 hour daily) at age 6 were: mother’s lower physical activity, a less warm mother-child relationship, mother lacking knowledge of the 60 minutes per day guidelines and there being no nearby swimming pool.
  • The factors associated with high screen time were: mother’s high screen time, the child having a TV in their bedroom, fewer mother and child shared activities, fewer parental rules for behaviour, greater social deprivation and poor quality local green spaces.
  • Most mothers with an overweight or obese child described their child’s weight as ‘normal’, with only 14% recognising their child as overweight. Mother’s recognition of overweight was associated with greater concern for their child’s weight but greater recognition and concern at age 4 was not associated with child weight loss by age 6.
  • These findings suggest that ‘whole family’ approaches to reducing and preventing child obesity might be more effective than approaches that focus on the child only. At the neighbourhood level, better access to places where children can be physically active in a safe environment, including attractive green spaces may increase activity levels and reduce sedentary behaviour.

Parenting and support

GUS collects information about ‘formal’ support for parents in the form of services provided by the Health service, local authorities and the voluntary sector. It also collects information about ‘informal’ support – information, advice and help from friends, family and the local community.

Formal support

  • Most parents see professionals as a source of help. GPs are the most commonly used formal service for families with children under 2 years. 87% of children aged 1-2 had been taken to see a GP in the last year, while 62% had seen a health visitor.
  • 69% of first-time mothers having babies in 2010/11 attended all or most of their antenatal classes. Younger mothers are less likely to attend classes than older mothers. The most common reasons for not attending are ‘not liking the group format’ and not knowing where classes were held.
  • Younger mothers are significantly more likely than older mothers to be wary of interference from professionals and of being judged by others. However, younger mothers are more likely than older mothers to say that they want more support from professionals like health visitors.
  • Parents with more negative attitudes towards services are more likely to have lower household incomes, are less likely to be in employment and more likely to have lower educational qualifications.  They are also less likely to have confidence in themselves as a parent and to have low actual service use. It is unclear whether low service use results from reluctance or whether reluctance stems from prior poor experience of services.

Informal support

  • Grandparents are a key source of support for most families in Scotland. 95% of families with children under 5 receive some type of help or support from grandparents and many receive a full range of support including regular childcare, babysitting, taking children on outings and providing financial or material support.
  • Around three-quarters of parents feel that they receive enough support from family and friends. One-fifth of parents feel that they do not get enough help, or none at all.
  • Older mothers and mothers in couple families are more likely to attend baby/toddler groups than younger mothers and lone mothers.
  • Parents with weaker networks of family and/or friends score lower in terms of emotional well-being than other parents with stronger networks.
  • Parents with stronger social networks engage in more activities with their children (such as reading stories and singing nursery rhymes) and also more open to seeking and using help and support from more formal sources when they need it.



  • Around half of parents (52%) regularly used childcare for their child aged 10 months in 20011/12.
  • Grandparents are the most common type of childcare used in Scotland, used by 69% of families with babies using childcare. 27% of families use nurseries, 18% use ‘other informal care’ (friends and siblings) while 10% of families use childminders.
  • On average, families using childcare for their baby aged 10 months did so for 22 hours per week.
  • For families paying for childcare, the average weekly costs was £88 and increase, in real terms, of £12 over the 6 years between 2005/06 and 2011/12.
  • 11% of families found it difficult to arrange childcare, the most reason given being lack of availability.
  • Many families use more than one childcare provider. 59% of families with a child aged just under 4 used more than one provider. The most common form of  ‘multiple’ childcare arrangement is the child’s grandparent(s) plus some other form of care, usually nursery.
  • Parents using more than one childcare provider are no less satisfied with their arrangements than parents using just one provider.
  • Using more than one type of childcare was not found to have a significant effect on children’s cognitive or behavioural development at ages 3 and 5.
  • In terms of the characteristics of pre-school education that have an impact on child development outcomes between the ages of 3 and 5 – of the various characteristics considered – type of provision, quality of provision, weekly duration of attendance, the size of the pre-school setting and having attended a nursery or playgroup setting prior to starting pre-school – only the grading on the Care Inspectorate’s theme of ‘care and support’ was found to be associated with assessed child outcomes, after controlling for differences in children’s backgrounds.


Early experiences of primary school

Entry to school

  •  87% of children started school the eyar they were eligible to while 13% were deferred until the following school year. Almost half of all children born during January and February were deferred. Boys were more likely than girls to experience deferred entry – 15% of boys, compared with 9% of girls. The rate of deferral did not vary by parents’ level of education, household income or area deprivation. The most common reasons given for deferral were that parents felt that their child was ‘not ready for school’ (44%) or not old enough (32%). 5% of parents had deferred following advice from their child’s nursery.

The transition to school  

  • Most parents felt that their child had been ready to start school but children starting school aged under 5 and those starting at over 5.5 years (and more likely to have been deferred) were more likely to be perceived as less ready.
  • Almost all parents had done some activities to prepare their child for school, like visiting the school, talking to their child about school and practising letters and numbers. Parents with higher levels of education were more likely to have done a greater number of preparation activities than those with lower educational qualifications.
  •  Most parents (92%) said that their child had adjusted well to school. However about one third of children had complained about school or were sometimes reluctant to go. Boys had more problems adjusting than girls,as did children with higher social, emotional and behavioural difficulties scores and lower cognitive ability scores.

Contact with the school and teachers

  • The majority of parents (94%) had attended a parents’ evening since their child started P1. The main reasons for attending were to find out about their child’s progress (81%) and to ask if their child had settled in well and made friends (22%). Almost half of parents had spoken to their child’s teacher outwith a parents’ event. 86% of parents felt their child’s teacher knew their child well and him or her appropriate support.
  • Two-thirds of parents had received information or advice from the school about how to help their child to learn. Almost all of these parents found the information useful.

Parental involvement

  • Parents were asked whether they had participated in a range of activities since their child had started Primary 1. The most common activity was visiting the child’s classroom (86%) followed by attending a school event in which their child had participated (81%). 24% of parents had attended a Parent Council, PTA or other such meeting while 19% of parents had volunteered in the classroom, school office or library.
  • 5% of parents had not taken part in any activities or event at their child’s school. Couple families, older mothers, parents in less deprived areas and those with higher educational qualifications reported higher levels of involvement.


Child well-being at age 7

These findings are from a project that investigated family and school influences on children’s social and emotional well-being at age 7. Both children’s behavioural and emotional difficulties and their subjective well-being are considered.

  • 11% of children have high levels of behavioural and emotional problems as assessed through the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) – parent reported.
  • For the purposes of the analysis, 25% of children were classed as having low life satisfaction, as assessed using an abbreviated version of the Huebner Life Satisfaction Scale, developed for use with children aged 7-14. Children were asked to respond to 5 items (Do you … feel that your life is going well, wish your life was different, feel that your life is just right, feel you have what you want in life, feel that you have a good life?) using a 4-point scale (never, sometimes, often, always).
  • 4% of children have both high levels of behavioural and emotional problems, and low life satisfaction.
  • 21% of children have low life satisfaction and normal levels of behavioural and emotional difficulties.
  • 7% have high levels of of behavioural and emotional problems but did not report low life satisfaction.
  • Children with high levels of emotional and behavioural difficulties are more likely to report low levels of life staisfcation (39%) than those with normal levels (24%).
  • Factors associated with both child mental health problems (behavioural and emotional difficulties) and low subjective well-being are: greater mother-child conflict and lower parental knowledge of the child’s activities and relationships when not at school; difficulties adjusting to the learning and social environment at primary school; and the child having poorer quality friendships with other children.
  • Economic factors and some other aspects of family life (including family structure and the child’s leisure activities) are not clearly associated with either measure of social and emotional well-being, after allowing for other influences.
  •  Family stressors such as poor maternal health, family mental health/ substance use problems and low maternal warmth are associated with child mental health problems but not child subjective well-being.
  • Experiencing a recent death, illness or accident in the family, and less positive parenting were associated with children’s subjective well-being, irrespective of levels of behavioural and emotional difficulties.
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