January 13, 2024 - 1:00pm

This week, Sir Keir Starmer criticised the Government over the UK’s “embarrassing” position in the international rankings for the average height of five-year-olds. He noted that between 1985 and 2019 Britain fell 27 places in the girls’ ranking and 33 places in the boys’. These declines, he said, were “predominantly down to malnutrition”. What do the facts say?

The rankings to which Starmer referred are those provided by the NCD Risk Factor Collaboration — a global network of health scientists that works with the WHO. (The underlying data were first published in The Lancet in 2020.) Perusing the figures, the Labour leader was right about the change in Britain’s position over the relevant time period. The country fell from 69th to 96th place in the girl’s ranking and from 69th to 102nd place in the boys’ ranking. 

But what about his claim that these declines were “predominantly down to malnutrition”? This seems altogether implausible. Although Britain fell in the rankings, the average height of its children actually increased — by 0.7cm in the case of girls and 1cm in the case of boys. So British children got taller over the relevant time period; it’s just that other countries’ children got even taller.

What’s more, several countries that are much more malnourished than Britain place higher in the most recent year. According to the figures, British girls are shorter than those in Kyrgyzstan, Palestine and North Korea, while British boys are shorter than those in Libya, Haiti and North Korea. The rankings as a whole make sense — rich countries are clustered near the top and poor countries near the bottom — but some of the figures are highly questionable. Are North Korean children really taller than British? Almost certainly not.  

Indeed, some other Western countries also rank suspiciously low. Switzerland — which has the number one score on the Human Development Index — is placed 72nd for girls (down from 47th) and 94th for boys (down from 45th). Like Britain, it ranks below North Korea for both boys and girls. Meanwhile, neighbouring Austria, which has an ethnically similar population but is not quite as rich, ranks far higher. 

Evidently, individual countries’ positions in the rankings have to be taken with a large grain of salt. The underlying data come from diverse sources and it’s possible that some countries’ samples were more or less representative of the population. Measurement differences may also play a role. For example, some countries’ data may have been collected by health professional, while others’ may be based on self-reports. 

There’s another oddity. When examining the international rankings for the average height of 19-year-olds, Britain places much higher: 39th for boys and 49th for girls. Here the country outranks North Korea by several dozen places. Switzerland, too, places far higher. Such vast discrepancies with the international rankings for the average height of five-year-olds call into question the validity of the latter. 

Could the growing fraction of British children with South Asian backgrounds help to explain the country’s fall in the rankings? It’s true that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all place very low. Yet recent studies have found that British children with South Asian backgrounds are about as tall as their white counterparts. The height difference between South Asian Britons and those in South Asia likely reflects better nutrition in Britain, as well as positive selection among migrants. 

It is unclear why Britain places so low in the international rankings for the average height of five-year-olds. But several observations suggest that “malnutrition” is unlikely to be the right explanation. Starmer ought to base his policies on a more careful reading of the evidence.

Noah Carl is an independent researcher and writer.