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More funding needed to help early years bounce back from Covid, experts warn

7 min read

There are children starting school who “don’t know how to eat, don’t know how to sit still… some even still in nappies, they don’t know how to respond to their own name, even”.

The troubling revelation comes from Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner, whose concerns are echoed by experts across the United Kingdom. Those working in the sector are now calling for urgent action to undo the damage to babies’ and children’s development. 

The damage caused by the pandemic to the personal, social and emotional growth of young children has prompted calls for the government to increase funding for early years provision, to give the youngest members of society a better start in life and support the levelling up agenda. 

Longfield sat on The Times Education Commission, set up to examine the future of education following the Covid crisis, and told The House how “some children [post-Covid] were even frightened of strangers and would hide if they were in a park and there were kids around”.

Experts have said the damaging impact of Covid on early years development threatens to make it even harder for the government to make progress on its levelling up agenda

While the devastating impact of Covid on older people was plain to see at the peak of the pandemic in the daily hospitalisation and fatality figures, experts warn the less obvious toll it exacted on children going through nursery and starting school has now become much clearer.

“We find we have a lot more children being passed on to speech and language [support] with difficulties in being understood,” Belinda Atkinson-Jones, a social learning mentor at a primary school in north-east England, told The House, adding that there are “more and more children that don’t play in the way they used to”.

Data from the government’s Office for Health Inequalities and Disparities (OHID) released in May showed the percentage of children aged two to two-and-a-half that were at or above the expected level of development for a range of metrics, including fine and gross motor skills, communication, and problem solving and social skills, dropped to 79.6 per cent in 2021 from 84.4 per cent in 2018.

“There are definitely children who have come through to nursery who just haven’t learnt how to do these things,” Libbi Tailor, an early years worker at Playday Nursery in County Durham, told The House. “Some children aren’t able to use their vocabulary as much as four years ago… You could definitely tell more children hadn’t been around others and were becoming upset.”

The decline in communications skills, a key building block in development, was particularly concerning, experts said.

“We know the devastating impact that speech, language and communication difficulties has on children’s ability to learn, make friends and achieve,” Louisa Reeves, head of impact and evidence at children’s charity I CAN, told The House.

Research last month from the independent Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) also showed that four- and five-year-olds’ literacy and maths skills, communication and language, physical development, and personal social and emotional development had all been affected by the pandemic. They found that the proportion of children reaching the expected levels in all areas was just 59 per cent in 2021, compared to 72 per cent for the 2019 cohort – equivalent to, on average, three more children in every classroom not reaching the expected levels by the end of the school year.

Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the EEF and founder of the social mobility charity Sutton Trust, said the figures showed that high-quality early years provision was more important than ever, and called for a concerted focus in “recruiting, retaining and developing the best staff… especially in the poorest areas”.

However, recent government figures show the number of paid staff at group-based providers, such as nurseries, fell to 237,000 in 2021, from 247,000 in 2019.

Dame Andrea Leadsom, who chaired the government’s 2021 early years development review which focused on improving outcomes in the “first 1001 days”, told The House the government was rolling out Family Hubs across England “to provide support for parents and carers in that critical perinatal period”. The Hubs aim to provide a physical and virtual space and outreach services to help parents with a range of skills, from learning about breastfeeding to encouraging them to talk about the pressures on their own relationships.

Leadsom believes that the six action areas set out in the ‘Best Start for Life – Vision for the 1001 Critical Days’ review would help improve outcomes for babies and young children during that crucial early period “when the building blocks for lifelong emotional and physical health are laid down.”

While all new parents face shared challenges, “if you add to that extreme poverty, not speaking English, being in insecure housing, perhaps with a violent partner, it’s unbelievably difficult”, she said.

However, asked if Family Hubs have the right level of geographic coverage and investment, Leadsom replied: “Not yet, but that’s where we’re going.”

The 2021 autumn spending review committed £500m investment over the next three years to Family Hubs, “Start for Life” services, and other support programmes, which will go to 75 of the 152 upper-tier (county councils and unitary authorities) local authorities in England. (Early years is a devolved area, but experts say young children in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales face similar challenges to their English counterparts). Leadsom suggested the remaining 77 English councils would need to rely on existing resources to provide similar services, or wait for funding to come in 2025 for the next spending review period.

While the Local Government Association welcomed investment in the “Start for Life” offer, Family Hubs and other programmes, it has warned that the children’s social care costs are expected to increase by an estimated £600m each year until 2024/25, meaning “councils face continuing to have to overspend on their budgets, which is clearly unsustainable”.

"You could definitely tell more children hadn’t been around others and were becoming upset.”

Experts have said the damaging impact of Covid on early years development threatens to make it even harder for the government to make progress on its levelling up agenda to spread economic opportunity and raise standards and prospects in more deprived areas.

Even before Covid hit, inequalities in children’s early cognitive, social and emotional development across the UK remained “stubbornly high” and changed little between those born in the early 2000s and those in the early 2010s, according to research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies published in May.

“If the government is truly committed to its levelling up agenda, then surely there is no better place to start than in the early years,” said Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance charity, the largest early years membership organisation in England.

Longfield, who now chairs the Commission on Young Lives – which looks for ways to support vulnerable children – said the pandemic had exacerbated inequalities, and councils needed more funds to help support services coalesce around Family Hubs, particularly in the most disadvantaged areas.

“It’s an absolute lost opportunity not to really rocket-fuel our early years,” the former children’s commissioner told The House. “You want to start with the youngest kids who are setting out in life, and there’s a segment of five years there that we could transform… and it would pay dividends for decades to come, not just for those kids, but for the public purse, and to not seize that would be quite short-sighted.”

The Department for Education said the early years of a child’s life are the most crucial, which is why they had invested more than £3.5bn in each of the last three years to deliver childcare programmes, and nearly £5bn in tutoring, training for teachers and early years practitioners, and early language interventions.

“We are investing millions to transform services for parents, carers, babies and children, including through Family Hubs where families can access important support services,” a spokesperson said in a statement to The House.

The final report of The Times Education Commission sets out the scale of the task, calling for a 15-year strategy for early years, which it said was “too often treated as a babysitting service… rather than the first crucial steps in education”.

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