Research published today puts the spotlight on stark differences in how primary school children spend time outside of school. About a third of children do very little in the way of organised sports activities and clubs outside of school compared to the majority who take part in a range of activities. How should we interpret this discrepancy between different children? Does it even matter how children spend their time outside of school?
Since the project began last summer, we’ve been analysing Millennium Cohort Study data to investigate how primary school children spend their time outside of school, how this changes over time as children mature and how it varies according to the characteristics of the children themselves and their families.
The new report, the second from this study, used a sophisticated approach to understand in detail the differences between children in how they spend their time. We were able to identify a typology of six groups according to participation in activities which we have called self-directed social, hobbies, granny and sports, extra instruction, extended school day and busy & highly structured.
So how do we explain the differences? Is it all about the haves and the have-nots? The evidence indicates that this is certainly part of the story. In the first stage of the project, we found that taking part in sports activities was strongly linked to the mother’s education level. The more highly educated the mother, the more frequently the children took part in sports activities. In this stage, we found that a high proportion of the ‘self-directed social’ group (who in place of structured activities spent more of their time with friends and on computers) were from families with low incomes. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘busy and highly structured’ group were mostly from stable working families engaged in professional or managerial jobs. However, children in the ‘extra instruction’ group were more likely to be engaged in religious instruction and private tuition (which can often be expensive) despite being disproportionately from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
So while affordability may be one important driver it’s clearly not the whole story. Children also take part in activities because they provide the childcare needed to fit with parents’ working patterns. How families value different activities also seems to be important. The Millennium Cohort Study provides valuable insight into understanding what children do but only goes so far in explaining the why. We are currently carrying out qualitative case studies with schools, activity providers, parents and children to find out more about the motivations and barriers to participation in out of school activities as well as the role of different values and what’s on offer in schools and the local community.
As to whether it matters what children get up to outside of school, opinions differ. The teachers we’ve spoken to regard structured activities as opportunities for personal and educational development but others think that unstructured time is important for children. Do the ‘busy and highly structured’ children we identified feel enriched or stressed by their extra-curricular activities? And are the ‘self-directed social’ children missing out or reaping the benefits of relaxed free time spent with friends?
In the next stage of the analysis, we’ll be looking to see whether activities are associated with academic attainment and whether for more disadvantaged children they have the potential to narrow the education gap at the end of primary school.
In the meantime, we’d like to know what you think. Please take a moment to share your views on the discussion board below.
The out of school activities and the education gap project is funded by Nuffield Foundation and is being carried out by NatCen Social Research, Newcastle University and ASK Research.