Ron Davie, who has died aged 90, was the former director of the National Children’s Bureau, which carries out research and works collaboratively to influence policy and improve services for children and young people, and co-director of the longitudinal National Child Development Study (NCDS) into the physical, educational and social development of children in Britain.
The NCDS started in 1958 as the Perinatal Mortality Study, gathering information on the births of 15,000 children born in the week between 3 and 9 March that year. This revealed the association between smoking in pregnancy and increased rates of infant mortality. In 1964, the opportunity arose to follow up these children, with a much wider remit including their education and overall development, and Ron was appointed senior research officer.
This massive and influential longitudinal study required the co-operation of every director of education and medical officer of health in Britain, and a range of complex methodologies – questionnaire design, critical path analysis, advanced statistics, use of computers and the tools and concepts of the demographer.
Within 18 months the team was committed to produce a report for the government’s review of primary education (published as the Plowden Report in 1967). The results were published separately in 1972 as From Birth to Seven, which Ron co-authored with Neville Butler and Harvey Goldstein, and which had considerable impact with its most prominent conclusion: that substantial social class differences in the attainment, health and development of Britain’s children were clearly evident from as early as seven years of age. The study is continuing, with further follow ups, now that the “children” are 62, and has influenced policy in Britain and overseas.
In 1974 Ron moved from the NCB, where he was by now deputy director, to a professorship in educational psychology in Cardiff, returning to the NCB as director in 1981. At this point the main focus of the NCB was its significant research programme, particularly the NCDS. Under Ron’s guidance, the NCDS moved first to City University and then to the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the University of London Institute of Education.
This enabled the NCB to engage in a wider range of research projects, largely in the field of child care and children with disabilities and special needs, many of them commissioned by central and local government to evaluate new services. The centre of gravity also began to move towards developing and disseminating good practice, as well as looking at the implications of research and practice for policy development.
The largest single focus of practice development was parenting and early childhood, with the establishment of what became the Early Childhood Unit; and on Ron’s watch the semi-independent Voluntary Council for Handicapped Children, now the Council for Disabled Children, grew in strength and influence.
Ron’s appointment as professional adviser to the all-party parliamentary group for children, and the establishment of a policy and practice review group, drawn from senior policy makers and professionals across education, child care and child health were examples of a new collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to working with children and young people, which became a key hallmark of the work of the NCB.
Ron understood the importance of underpinning proactive interdisciplinary policy for children with a robust legislative framework. Under his leadership the NCB played a major role in the drafting and subsequent implementation of the 1989 Children Act, which promotes the principle of the welfare of the child as being paramount in all decisions affecting the child, in the courts and beyond.
Ron was born in Birmingham, the son of Thomas Davie, a tailor, and his wife, Gladys (nee Powell). He grew up on a council estate and on passing the 11-plus attended King Edward VI grammar school in Aston, which was evacuated to Leicestershire during the second world war. On leaving school he joined an export merchant, but decided he wanted to work with people and applied to Reading University to read psychology.
On realising that he wanted to work with children and become an educational psychologist, he then took a teacher training qualification at Manchester University, specialising in teaching deaf children. There he met Kathleen Wilkinson, a fellow trainee, whom he married in 1957.
Ron spent five years teaching first deaf children, then “educationally subnormal” pupils, then “secondary modern” children and, finally, in primary schools. In 1961 he took a postgraduate training course at the University of Birmingham and accepted a post as a child psychologist on the Isle of Wight.
His life took a change of direction when his former course tutor at Birmingham, Mia Kellmer Pringle, who had just moved to be the first director of the new National Bureau for Co-operation in Child Care (later renamed the National Children’s Bureau) appointed Ron to the NCDS.
On taking early retirement from the NCB in 1990, Ron returned to his first love, working with children and families again. For 14 years, he worked as a freelance consultant psychologist, appearing on behalf of the official solicitor as an expert witness on children’s cases in the family court in London until 2000 and working throughout Britain for education and social services, including chairing, in 1992, an inquiry for Gwent on child sexual abuse in a residential school.
In the same year, he was elected the first president of the newly formed National Association for Special Educational Needs, which brought together the National Association for Remedial Education (NARE) and the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), contributing to the national consultation on the highly influential SEN Code of Practice.
This set out clear criteria for the assessment and provision of education for pupils needing extra support because of a disability or learning difficulty and gave parents new rights to be active partners in the assessment of and personalised planning for their children’s needs. Ron was a member of the Special Educational Needs tribunal until his retirement in 2004.
As a young man Ron was a keen sportsman. He was a member of Birmingham rowing club, represented Reading University at rugby and athletics and Manchester University at rugby. In his retirement in Cumbria he became a church warden, chair of governors at a local school and chair of the local history society.
He is survived by Kathleen, a daughter, Alison, and a son, Neil, six grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
• Ronald Davie, educational psychologist, born 25 November 1929; died 31 December 2019