Duchess of Cambridge visits UCL to discuss landmark early years study

Duchess of Cambridge visits UCL - The Duchess of Cambridge during visit to UCL.
Duchess of Cambridge visits UCL - The Duchess of Cambridge during visit to UCL. Credit: Pete Maclaine/Parsons Media 
Early years researchers leading a new landmark birth study, Children of the 2020s*, today welcomed Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge to UCL.

The new nationally representative birth cohort study is hosted by UCL’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies and funded by the Department of Education. Co-led by researchers from the UCL Faculty of Brain Sciences and the UCL Institute of Education and in partnership with Ipsos MORI, the study is seeking to recruit over 8,000 families next year to track the development of children from the age of nine months to five years.

Speaking ahead of the visit, The Duchess of Cambridge said: "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.

"The landmark ’Children of the 2020s’ study will illustrate the importance of the first five years and provide insights into the most critical aspects of early childhood, as well as the factors which support or hinder positive lifelong outcomes.

"I am committed to supporting greater in-depth research in this vital area and I’m delighted to be meeting all those behind the study at this early stage."

Lead researcher, Professor Pasco Fearon (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences and Anna Freud Centre), said: "We are extremely excited to welcome HRH The Duchess of Cambridge to UCL to talk and hear more about our Children of the 2020s study today and as it develops over the coming years.

"The study will collect vital information on how children develop during the crucial early years of life. We will be studying their family circumstances and experiences as they grow up, as well as the role of formal and informal childcare and preschool education in their learning and development.

"We share with Her Royal Highness a commitment to improving children’s development and life chances through high quality research and good early years policy and we believe the Children of the 2020s study will play a really important part of that for this next generation of children."

During the visit, The Duchess viewed archive material of historic research dating back to the 1940s into early childhood including a ’Birth Questionnaire’ given to new mothers in 1958, which included questions about pregnant women’s smoking habits. While not a standard question at the time, the responses allowed researchers to track the impact that smoking during pregnancy had on a baby’s birth weight, and also how it continued to affect different aspects of a child’s life into adulthood. This led to a public health campaign to stop women smoking whilst pregnant, something which is now commonplace.

Co-investigator, Professor Alissa Goodman (Director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, UCL Institute of Education), said: "Some of the most important sources of evidence we have on the early years are the UK’s unique collection of birth cohort studies. One of the most important things we’ve found is how the influence of our early experiences - even in utero - continue to reveal themselves through the whole of our lives. 

"We’re delighted HRH, The Duchess of Cambridge, will be able to follow the Children of the 2020s study from its infancy. It is the latest in a proud tradition of cohort studies and will be critical in showing us how the lives of babies being born now will be different to the generations that came before them." 

The research team also hopes to continue following the study participants for many further years to come through administrative data, and subject to funding, potentially through further waves of primary data collection, similar to other studies with life-long participants that are also based at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at UCL.

The study will include babies born in April, May, and June 2021 and the research team from UCL, Ipsos MORI, the University of Oxford, Birkbeck, University of London, and the Anna Freud Centre will seek to recruit families in early 2022 to take part in the study.

Duchess of Cambridge’s early years interest and UCL’s support

In June this year The Duchess of Cambridge formally launched The Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood, which will drive both awareness and action on the positive impact the early years have on individuals and communities.

The announcement followed 10 years of work by The Duchess, in which she has looked at how difficult experiences in early childhood are often the root cause of key social challenges such as poor mental health, family breakdown, addiction and homelessness.  

In launching the new centre, The Duchess paid tribute to Professors Peter Fonagy OBE and Eamon McCrory (both UCL Psychology & Language Sciences), who have been working with The Duchess on the importance of early childhood for a number of years and are both members of The Royal Foundation’s Early Years Steering Group.

Also in June, Professor McCrory spoke with The Duchess and the First Lady of the United States Dr Jill Biden at a roundtable about early years education at the G7 summit in Cornwall.

In November 2018 The Royal Foundation published ’State of the nation: Understanding public attitudes to early years’, which involved researchers at UCL and the Anna Freud Centre. This report included the ’5 Big Questions on the Under Fives’ survey, which attracted over half a million responses, making it the biggest ever UK study on the early years.

Rowan Walker 

Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 8515

Email: rowan.walker [at] ucl.ac.uk