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Four- and five-year-olds were less likely to meet the expected levels of development in 2021 than before the pandemic, with parents and schools reporting that children’s personal-social and emotional development, language, literacy, and numeracy skills had been affected.

This is according to the final report from a major research project commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and conducted by a team from University of York, National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and the Education Policy Institute (EPI), published today.

Using a sample of Early Years Foundation Stage data, the 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.

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% in 2021, compared to 72% for the 2019 cohort. This 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 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%) reported that they needed more support than those starting school before the pandemic. This had fallen to just over half (56%) by the end of the school year.

Today’s new research is included in a summary report, also published by the EEF today, that reviews a wide body of research to give an up-to-date picture of how the pandemic has affected learning for different groups of pupils. It finds that:

  • 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. 

While the report finds some evidence that education recovery is beginning in some subjects and in some age groups, schools still face considerable challenges in mitigating the effects of the pandemic. To support recovery efforts, the EEF has produced a practical guide for schools to support their planning and recovery efforts into the next school year.

‘Moving Forwards’ promotes a three-pronged approach to school planning, to enable busy school leaders to consider where best to invest time, energy, and resources for the benefit of their pupils and education recovery. It focuses on:

  1. High-quality teaching, every day, for all pupils. This is the most important factor when it comes to improving attainment outcomes, particularly for socially disadvantaged pupils.    
  2. Targeted academic interventions. For pupils in need of additional support, targeted interventions that are finely tuned to their individual needs and act as a complement to classroom teaching can help.    
  3. Addressing non-academic barriers to success at school. Strategies to improve barriers to success like poor attendance and behaviour can have an influence over attainment.     

Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation (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.

Ruth Coleman, headteacher at Highfield Nursery School in Ipswich, said:

“When children returned to our nursery after the pandemic, many struggled with vital aspects of early years development, such as personal touch, or coping in bigger groups of children. We saw more children who had separation anxiety from their parents too. Some children were further behind with speech and language development than we’d expect.

“But we’ve also seen some positives too. We’ve developed our use of online technology platforms to better communicate with parents and families. We’ve also seen the benefits of sharing stories remotely. This has been a real boost for our children.”

Claudine Bowyer-Crane, Associate Research Director – Education and Skills at NIESR, said:

“Our research reveals some worrying findings. Not only does it suggest that children who started Reception in Sept. 2020 are struggling in the specific learning areas of literacy and maths, but also that a smaller proportion of these children are achieving a good level of development, when compared to children in the pre-pandemic cohort.

“We recommend a package of support be made available to schools to help mitigate this negative impact, and go towards ensuring that all affected children have the strongest foundations upon which they can build and reach their full potential.”

Sector Response

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“This research adds to the worrying picture of the damage done to our youngest children’s education by the impact of the pandemic. Constant periods of disruption have been very difficult to mitigate for all age groups but especially so for young children because of the difficulty of teaching this age group remotely.

“Schools are working incredibly hard to help children catch-up with lost learning and are making progress according to the EEF’s research. But they have been let down by the government’s recovery programme, which is both inadequately funded and a confusing tangle of different programmes, routes and bureaucracy. It is sadly inevitable that those hardest hit are our very youngest pupils and particularly those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

“It would have been much better if all the funding had been provided to schools from the outset via a simple funding mechanism. The government simply must do better for all children and young people.”

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