Pandemic adversely affected young children’s development, new report finds

Kathy Oxtoby
Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Four-and five-year-olds were less likely to meet the ‘expected’ levels of development in 2021 than before the pandemic, new research has shown.

Four- and five-year-olds were less likely to meet the expected levels of development in 2021 than before the pandemic, the final report from the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) research project into the impact of Covid, has found.

Parents and schools reported that children’s personal-social and emotional development, language, literacy, and numeracy skills had been affected, according to research conducted by a team from the University of York, National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and the Education Policy Institute.

Using a sample of EYFS data, researchers assessed the impact of the pandemic on the development of children who were in Reception class for the school year that ran from 2020-21.

Up-to-date picture of impact of how pandemic affected learning

They found that the proportion of children in their sample reaching the expected levels in all areas – communication and language, physical development, literacy, maths and personal, social and emotional development – was 59 per cent in 2021, compared to 72 per cent for the 2019 cohort. The difference is equivalent to, on average, three more children in every classroom not reaching the expected levels by the end of the school year, the researchers said.

The findings are supported by surveys of schools asking them about their pupils’ development. When this cohort of children started school in 2020, over three-quarters (76 per cent) reported that they needed more support than those starting school before the pandemic. This had fallen to just over half (56 per cent) by the end of the school year.

The EEF has also separately published a summary report reviewing a wide body of research to paint an up-to-date picture of how the pandemic has affected learning for different groups of pupils. It finds:

  • While all pupils’ learning has been affected, the attainment gap between socially disadvantaged students and their classmates has grown across all age groups.
  • There is some evidence that in primary schools, younger year groups have been the most significantly affected.
  • Aside from the impact on attainment, which is the focus of today’s report, teachers have frequently reported concerns around the impact on pupil wellbeing.

To support recovery efforts, the EEF has produced “Moving Forwards” a practical guide for schools to support their planning and recovery efforts into the next school year.

New report ‘adds to growing body of research’

Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the EEF, said: ‘The early years are such a crucial time for children’s development, both in terms of their attainment outcomes and their social and emotional wellbeing. So it is particularly concerning that fewer children reached the expected levels of development by the end of Reception class.

‘Today’s new report adds to a growing body of research that gives us a more robust understanding of how children and young people have been affected by the pandemic, and the measures that will need to be taken to facilitate their recovery and move learning forwards.

‘To support this, our new guide offers practical advice and signposts evidence-informed resources on a variety of areas of teaching practice, from ensuring high quality teaching to removing non-academic barriers to attainment.’

The Early Years Alliance said it was it was ‘not surprising, though still disheartening’ to read the EEF’s research detailing the knock-on impact that Covid-19 has had on a child’s attainment in their first year of primary school.

Early years providers ‘have gone above and beyond’ to help young children

Neil Leitch, chief executive at the Early Years Alliance, said: ‘This research highlights just how important early education is in laying the foundations for a child’s future. Despite the disruption brought on by the pandemic, early years providers have gone above and beyond to help young children catch-up on vital education.  

 ‘However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so in a sector that is so grossly underfunded, and will become all the more challenging if the government proceeds with its plan to relax ratios at a time when children need more support than ever.’

 The final report is available here 

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