Our Early Years Lead, Laura Barbour, unpacks our two latest reports on the early years. 

The pain of the coronavirus crisis and its longterm repercussion on schools and universities has been well documented. Yet little has been told of its impact on the early years sector, a sector already struggling before the pandemic hit.  

This is explored in the latest of the Sutton Trust’s impact briefs, published this week alongside a major report examining the equality of existing early years provision 

According to the research, some families have welcomed the opportunity in the last few months to be able to spend more time playing with and talking to their toddlers and young children. But for others, not being able to access their child’s usual early education setting has brought stress and difficulty.  

As one provider said:  

There are some children who have been at home with both parents who were trying to juggle work with looking after their child and attempting to home school. These children have not had a positive experience, they have had no social interaction with other children, have lost confidence and have been living in a very stress filled environment.” 

It seems that there has also been an unexpected upside for small percentage of children, who, on account of their parents having vital role throughout the crisis, have continued to access early years education and who are thriving. For these children it has often been a positive experience. As one Birmingham provider said: 

I do believe that the key children who attended the setting during lockdown have come on leaps and bounds, they have enjoyed the routines, social interaction and had lots of fun.  

This 4th Emergency Service” to quote June O’Sullivan, Chief Executive of LEYF Social Enterprise nursery chainhas been provided thanks to the flexibility of the sector to adapt swiftly. Despite our polling showing that two-thirds of settings were closed during April, maintained settings (both nursery schools and primary schoolshave joined up with private, voluntary and independent (PVI) nurseries, to ensure essential places are offered through early years hubs 

Unfortunately, this positive experience for a few is in marked contrast to many children for whom this long gap in accessing provision – already a quarter of the year – is likely to have a profound impact on their development and learning. This is a really sizeable group and it’s clear that within this group the impact on the poorest will be greatest.  

These children have been missing out on opportunities for early learning and development, as well as the chance for early identification of need and helpAs has been flagged in Getting the Balance Rightthere is a long standing attainment gap between children from the lowest income families and their more advantaged peers, which had been slowly declining between 2007 and 2017. But in 2018 and 2019 the gap had reopened to 2015 levels and we expect this will be exacerbated by the current crisis. This report also explores the challenge of supporting child development and learning through high quality education provision and, raising parental employment through flexible, affordable childcare 

During the coronavirus crisis, the role of early years provision has been viewed primarily as childcare issue. But the longer-term impact of this hiatus on children’s early education that is also of concernparticularly for the most vulnerable children, who benefit most from high quality provision. The legacy of this crisis is that if this loss of access is not addressed, the attainment gap will continue to grow as they go through the system. 

It is going to take a highly skilled workforce to provide the immediate remedial support and longer-term enrichment needed for these children. Securing social and emotional development and wellbeing has been an issue for all children, but there are also issues of compromised physical development for those who have had little access to outside space. There are also concerns about how language development will be affected, and this impact is likely to have been more severe for those in deprived communities.  

Polling of parents included in our report also highlights the understandable anxiety many parents feel about their child returning to their setting. As one parent said: 

I feel that the new set-up based on government guidelines would distress my child. If it wasn’t for this, I would have been happy for my child to return to preschool. 

This is going to mean increased pressure on staff to provide reassurance for families as their children return after a long break and with unfamiliar new conditions, whether that is now or in a few months time. This additional pressure will be on top of what has already been a very stressful time for the early years workforce, many of whom are themselves from BAME communities who have suffered disproportionately from coronavirus. Their experience may well have a significant and long-term impact on those that have been working throughout this crisis and who are reporting PTSD and health and wellbeing issues. These staff also need to be supported and given the recognition they deserve. 

At a time when it has been identified that it is the least advantaged who are most likely to suffer the immediate and long-term consequences of the crisis, we must urgently address an existing inequality within the systemIt is currently the most disadvantaged three year-old children who are likely to qualify for only 15 hours early education entitlement, while their more advantaged peers get 30 hours.  

In financial terms, this policy also provides greater financial benefit for better-off parents as they are now entitled to double the amount of funded childcare which they would have paid for themselves. Our report explores options for addressing this inequality which would counter the inconsistency of policies prioritising early education and the disadvantage gap (the two year-old offer and the universal entitlement of 15 hours for three and four year-olds) and those prioritising access to employment (the 30 hours entitlement for working parents)Affordable child care to support access to employment and quality early education, are both important and should work in harmony. 

As in many areas the crisis has highlighted and exacerbated existing inequalities. The two Sutton Trust reports published this week provide practical recommendations for immediate measures to address these issues. Now is a critical time to lay the foundations for the future life chances of the first generation of children starting their journey after the pandemic. It is an opportunity to get it right for those children, their families, future generations and society. 

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