A new study of educational attainment among U.K. primary and secondary schoolchildren born prematurely now provides some reassurance about the longer-term outcomes for many of these children.
For the study,in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, researchers from the University of Oxford with colleagues from the University of Leicester and City University, London, used data from 11,695 children in the population-based UK Millennium Cohort Study, which included children born in England from Sept. 1, 2000 to Aug. 31, 2001. They analyzed data on educational attainment in primary school, at age 11, for 6,950 pupils and in secondary school, at age 16, for 7,131 pupils.
Preterm birth is a known risk factor for developmental impairment, lower educational performance and reduced academic attainment, with the impact proportional to the degree of prematurity. Not every child born prematurely will experience learning or developmental challenges, but studies of children born before 34 weeks gestation have shown that they are more likely to have cognitive difficulties, particularly poorer reading and maths skills, at primary school, and to have special educational needs by the end of primary education.
Elevated risk of all preterm children in primary school
Until now, few studies have followed these children through secondary school or examined the full spectrum of gestational ages at birth. Yet as neonatal care advances and more premature babies now survive, an average primary class in the United Kingdom now includes two preterm children.
Among the primary school children overall, 17.7% had not achieved their expected level in English and mathematics at age 11. Children born very preterm, before 32 weeks or at 32-33 weeks gestation, were more than twice as likely as full term children to fail to meet these benchmarks, with adjusted relative risks of 2.06 and 2.13, respectively. Those born late preterm, at 34-36 weeks, or early term, at 37-38 weeks, were at lesser risk, with RRs of 1.18 and 1.21, respectively.
By the end of secondary school, 45.2% of pupils had not passed the benchmark of at least five General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations, including English and mathematics. The RR for children born very preterm, compared with full term children, was 1.26, with 60% of students in this group failing to achieve five GCSEs. However, children born at gestations between 32 and 38 weeks were not at elevated risk, compared with children born at full term.
Risk persists to secondary level only for very preterm children
A similar pattern was seen with English and mathematics analyzed separately, with no additional risk of not passing among children born at 32 weeks or above, but adjusted RRs of 1.33 for not passing English and 1.42 for not passing maths among pupils who had been born very preterm, compared with full term children.
“All children born before full term are more likely to have poorer attainment during primary school, compared with children born full term (39-41 weeks), but only children born very preterm (before 32 weeks) remain at risk of poor attainment at the end of secondary schooling,” the researchers concluded.
“Further studies are needed in order to confirm this result,” they acknowledge. They suggested their results could be explained by catch-up in academic attainment among children born moderately or late preterm or at early term. However, “very preterm children appear to be a high-risk group with persistent difficulties in terms of educational outcomes,” they said, noting that even this risk was of lower magnitude than the reduced attainment scores they found among pupils eligible for free school meals, meaning those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.