The first three years of primary school sees a dramatic inequality gap open up when the mental health difficulties experienced by the poorest Scottish children are compared with the richest.
The widening gap has been identified for the first time in a major new study of thousands of pupils aged between four and seven and has led to calls for “routine monitoring” of the mental health of children at primary schools.
The experts behind the Scottish Government-funded study, which identified a more than threefold increase in the gap, also believe nursery staff should look out for signs of mental health difficulties in pre-school children.
Researchers at Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow universities followed almost 4,000 children and found that 4.1 per cent of those from the most affluent backgrounds displayed social, emotional or behavioural abnormalities when they went to primary school aged four or five.
When children from the most deprived areas were considered by the research conducted across Glasgow, the proportion with mental health difficulties rose to 7.3 per cent.
By the time the children reached primary three and were aged seven the proportion of the richest children experiencing social, emotional or behavioural difficulties had fallen to 3.6 per cent.
In contrast, the proportion of children from the poorest areas experiencing social, emotional or behavioural difficulties had leapt from 7.3 per cent to 14.7 per cent.
By the time the children reached seven the 14.7 per cent of the poorest children experiencing mental health difficulties was three and a half times the 3.6 per cent of the richest children having problems.
One of the experts involved in the study described the findings as the “most dispiriting” he had come across in his research career, warning that mental health problems can impact on academic performance and life chances.
The results, which have just been published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, will shed new light on the challenges of closing the academic attainment gap which sees rich pupils outperform their poorer counterparts.
Nicola Sturgeon has made closing the attainment gap her key priority as her administration seeks to reform the Scottish education system.
Yesterday Dr Louise Marryat, of Edinburgh University, who is the academic co-ordinating the research, said: “The key thing this study found is that children from more deprived backgrounds are starting pre-school with higher levels of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and these are getting worse over time.
“There is this threefold widening of the inequality of the most affluent group and the most deprived group. We know that more affluent children have an advantage when it comes to cognitive ability, but now we can see it actually in social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and wider mental health status as well.
“We really need to be putting resources into those very early years because there is this gap when children reach school and that just widens.”
The study, which divided children into five categories based on the deprivation levels in their area of Glasgow, also found that it was only the children in the richest area who experienced an improvement in mental health.
Her colleague, Professor Phil Wilson, of Aberdeen University, said the findings were the “most dispiriting” to emerge from studies he had been involved in.
He said: “Nobody has identified this as an issue before and I was surprised at how big the effect was. There was this massive amplification.
“It is important, not just because these children are having a little bit of a low mood. These children in the abnormal range are almost certainly not going to be learning anything. When you think about it that way and you think about what the implications are for the future of those kids, it means they are going to be failing all through their lives.
“There is lots of evidence that mental health problems in primary school predict all kinds of bad things happening later on in life. Everything from not making a very good living or going to jail, or dying early for that matter.”
The research looked at the impact the schools were having on the children, but was unable to detect any markers that had an influence on mental health other than that results were poorer in primaries with poorer children.
But the paper concluded: “Routine monitoring of the impact of primary schools on mental health is warranted.”
Last night Councillor Chris Cunningham, Glasgow’s convener for education, skills and early years, said: “Glasgow has for many years used a variety of early intervention models – including our highly successful nurture principles – to target the specific needs of our most vulnerable children and young people.
“It’s well documented that over 40 per cent of our children and young people live in the 10 per cent most deprived postcodes in Scotland and are exposed to the pressures and issues associated with this.
“However, by identifying children’s needs as early as possible we are helping to reduce any potential risks and help build capacity for families to cope and working with a number of partnership agencies to achieve this.”
The Scottish Government has begun a national review of personal and social education, which includes consideration of the role of guidance and counselling in local authority schools.
According to the government, its £750 million Scottish Attainment Challenge fund has enabled schools and local authorities to employ a range of staff. They include educational psychologists, home school link workers, mental health counsellors and speech and language therapists.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Local authorities and schools will be using a range of approaches and resources to support children and young people with their mental and emotional wellbeing in line with local needs and circumstances.
“Along with literacy and numeracy, health and wellbeing is one of the three core areas that are the responsibility of all staff in the school. It is our ambition for every child and young person in Scotland to have appropriate access to emotional and mental wellbeing support in school.
“Making sure children and young people are included, engaged and involved in their education is fundamental to achievement and attainment in school.
The spokeswoman added: “Schools should provide a positive culture for all students’ social, emotional and mental wellbeing, with appropriate pastoral care and access to educational psychologists.”