The impact of the pandemic on early education
Early years settings and schools were confronted with a number of challenges during the pandemic, which exacerbated some pre-existing problems. Early years settings faced temporary closures due to lockdowns as well as a reduced demand for their services, which increased the financial pressures settings were already facing. The pandemic has also worsened ongoing staffing problems, due to staff absences with covid, as well as recruitment and retention issues.
Whilst covid restrictions are over, attendance has still not fully recovered, and the staffing crisis continues. At the same time settings are being stretched to deal with the impact covid has had on children’s development, as children arrive with delayed speech and language development, as well as lower levels of social emotional skills and physical development compared to pre-pandemic. A recent study published by the Education Endowment Foundation has found that fewer children have achieved a good level of development for the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP), compared to children before the pandemic.
The Early Years Special Initiative
Throughout this period, early years charities have worked hard to deliver activities and programmes aimed at improving children’s outcomes and reducing inequalities within this more challenging context.
The Education Policy Institute (EPI) have gained a particular insight into these ongoing challenges thanks to its involvement in the Mercers’ Company’s Early Years Special Initiative, which is funded by the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington. The Initiative supports organisations working to improve the educational attainment, and life chances of young children and families facing disadvantage in London. Since its launch in 2019, ten diverse projects, across three cohorts, have been funded for a period of three years. EPI is working with each of the programmes, acting as a ‘critical friend’, supporting them with an evaluation framework and drawing out lessons learned across all programmes in the Initiative. Many of these lessons learned stem from pandemic-related challenges and below we take an opportunity to reflect on these challenges and on how the programmes turned some of these into opportunities.
Cohort 1 programmes
The first cohort of programmes became part of the initiative just before the pandemic. This includes Chickenshed, the Scouts Association and the National Literacy Trust. Chickenshed is an inclusive theatre company who increase opportunities for disadvantaged children to access arts-based methods of delivering education in Enfield and Haringey. They achieve this through delivering inclusive theatre-based activities, training early years practitioners, and developing tools and materials that support the transition of activities from nursery to home. The Scouts Association has adapted and extended its scouting model for older children to children aged 4 to 5 years, delivering weekly age-appropriate scouting sessions focusing on improving communication skills, executive functions, independence and school-readiness among disadvantaged 4 and 5 year olds. They deliver their early years curriculum ‘Squirrels’ through 3 models – Scout-led, Family Scouting and Partnership delivery. The final programme in cohort 1 is the National Literacy Trust which focuses on improving communication, language and early literacy skills by training early years practitioners to deliver a six week programme ‘Early Words Together’ to families, equipping parents and carers with the skills and confidence they need to support their child’s language and literacy development.
Challenges and opportunities for programmes delivering the Early Years Special Initiative during the pandemic
Along with programmes in subsequent cohorts, Chickenshed, Scouts and the National Literacy Trust have reflected on the multiple challenges they faced operating during the pandemic. Early years settings and schools were stretched to deal with the many pressures the pandemic brought on; therefore, implementing these programmes understandably moved to a lower place on their list of priorities. Nevertheless, when programmes did deliver online content this was really valued by education settings and families. Having to move everything online presented another challenge, however, as programmes had to very quickly re-design content and get to grips with new platforms for online delivery. An additional challenge of moving online was the digital divide, with some families not having access to devices or sufficient devices so that children could join online. For those that did have access, some programmes found that children were sometimes ‘zoomed out’ from all the other content that was being delivered online. Finally, programmes noticed the detrimental impact the pandemic had on children’s mental health, which sometimes affected their engagement with the programmes’ activities.
However, in having to adapt to the many challenges programmes reflected that they also found new opportunities. The switch to online programme delivery led to some programmes investing in digital platforms, and making their activities and related material accessible beyond those the programmes were initially aimed at. For example, Chickenshed expanded their online reach by creating short online episodes of Tales TV available on YouTube, which has had more than 16,000 views since April 2020. Moving online also enabled the National Literacy Trust to provide support to parents through their Facebook Live Early Words Together sessions with an average reach per session of more than 1100 views and over 300 live sessions transmitted so far.
Moving online also allowed programmes to provide a model and support other practitioners, by making it easier to provide multiple trainings. For example, the National Literacy Trust were able to reach more practitioners with their training by recording training sessions. The Scouts Association have also developed a Squirrels section on the website to provide support to volunteers, as well as providing online webinars to support groups and using Facebook to facilitate collaboration.
Another opportunity arose from being unable to hold sessions indoors during the pandemic, which led to each of the programmes providing outdoor activities. The National Literacy Trust created Early Words Together Outdoors sessions to enable parents and children to safely come together and participate in activities, bringing additional benefits of being outside for children’s language development, as communication is prompted by new and sensory experience. Chickenshed developed a fully outdoor creative delivery programme which has had a lasting impact, with the venues they work with continuing aspects of creativity in outdoor spaces, such as having a puppet box outside during play time.
The enforced lack of face-to-face contact during lockdowns also gave programmes a chance to pause and further develop their approach. For example, it gave the Scouts Association the freedom to think more creatively and look at different ways of engaging and supporting groups, before launching their early years Squirrels programme nationally in September 2021.
More generally, programmes, including those from other cohorts reflected that following the withdrawal of many services and activities during the pandemic, families have become more aware of the many benefits of their programmes. This difficult period also allowed programmes to understand what they were able to achieve during such difficult circumstances and recognising their resilience as an organisation has also given a boost to morale.
The need for more support from government
The opportunities programmes found should not obscure the fact that they continue to operate in difficult circumstances, in schools and early years settings that are themselves still stretched and dealing with ongoing difficulties. Significantly, this is the context of not enough support from government, as the early years have been largely overlooked in covid recovery efforts, both in the Levelling Up White Paper and the Schools White Paper.