Primary schools and the amplification of social differences in child mental health: a population-based cohort study

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Abstract

Background

This paper examines socioeconomic inequalities in mental health at school entry and explores changes in these inequalities over the first 3 years of school.

Methods

The study utilises routinely collected mental health data from education records and demographic data at ages 4 and 7 years, along with administrative school-level data. The study was set in preschool establishments and schools in Glasgow City, Scotland. Data were available on 4011 children (59.4%)at age 4 years, and 3166 of these children were followed at age 7 years (46.9% of the population). The main outcome measure was the teacher-rated Goodman’s Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (4–16 version) at age 7 years, which measures social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Results

Children living in the most deprived area had higher levels of mental health difficulties at age 4 years, compared with their most affluent counterparts (7.3%vs4.1% with abnormal range scores). There was a more than threefold widening of this disparity over time, so that by the age of 7 years, children from the most deprived area quintile had rates of difficulties 3.5 times higher than their more affluent peers. Children’s demographic backgrounds strongly predicted their age 7 scores, although schools appeared to make a significant contribution to mental health trajectories.

Conclusions

Additional support to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds at preschool and in early primary school may help narrow inequalities. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds started school with a higher prevalence of mental health difficulties, compared with their more advantaged peers, and this disparity widened markedly over the first 3 years of school.

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