Much has been made of the lockdown impact on school pupils, particularly those in examination years, but not enough has been written about problems in education for our very youngest pupils.
Through my work with The Parenting Circle, a charity committed to working with schools and parents to improve school readiness, it has become clear that the closures of school and nursery during the extended lockdown periods of 2020 and 2021 have had a profound impact on the academic, social and emotional development of young people.
A reception and year one teacher, Kelly, told me that “When my reception and year 1 children returned from the first lockdown, we expected to see academic slippage but we hadn’t realised the impact it would have on the children, socially and emotionally. For the first few days, some of the children sat or stood alone away from their friends, as if they’d forgotten how to play. There was also significant regression in terms of learning behaviours.”
The Early Years and Foundation Stage of education (EYFS) cover the two years which straddle nursery and reception. It is in these years that social and emotional goals are worked towards, by specialist teachers guiding children to learn how to learn through play and other child-led activities. By the end of this stage of education, children are measured as to their level of ‘school readiness’. We already know that children from deprived backgrounds are often 10% behind their better-off peers, and this socio-economic gap will have worsened over lockdown.
Of course, it’s not only professionals who are concerned. Naomi, mum to Eilah (4) told me: “I’m sad that my daughter is missing out on the most important years of her life The early years are when children learn through play; learning about sharing, cooperation and friendships.”
Eilah got so lonely this term, she asked her mum to make her pancake friends.
Unlike so many conundrums we have faced with the pandemic, this ‘missing year’ problem at least has a solution – if we can find the political and departmental energy to make things happen at the DfE.
This group of children, who have lost a quarter of their lives to lockdown can be given a new start. Let us, for their sake, extend the foundation stage of education into year 1. Give them back their lost year of play, exploration, freedom and friends. The academic stuff will follow; we must get this bit right.