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Getting it right in the early years.

Three weeks ago today, a generation of children who have spent around a third of their lives in the pandemic found out where they will be starting their school journey in the autumn term. For many of them, their levels of school readiness will be significantly different from those children that started school prior to the pandemic.

The impact of the lockdown on our youngest children has been widely reported. Just last month the Education Endowment Foundation published initial findings from a survey of 50,000 pupils that shows an increase in the number of four and five year olds needing help with speech and language.

For some children, their experience over the pandemic has been positive as a result of more time at home with parents/carers and increased play and time outdoors. However, the impact of the pandemic will not be the same for all early years children and will exacerbate and widen the gap already apparent for those children who are more vulnerable or living in poverty.

The pandemic has deprived many of this generation of children of social contact and the experiences that supports the development of vocabulary and social skills. Key skills that enable children to express themselves, interact with others and make themselves understood are ordinarily developed through social interaction with peers and others outside of the home. Many families also missed out on crucial developmental checks that identify early the need for additional support, leading to many more children starting school with unidentified needs.

But we know all of this already, through our services we champion the importance of early education, support the development of good quality provision locally and work with partners to develop support around the first 1001 critical days to enable children to have the best start in life. We also know the long-term impact of not getting it right in the early years.

So, whilst the research is really positive in terms of shining a light on the importance of early education, my concern is that the pandemic has shifted the narrative of the benefits of early education away from the fundamental benefits to the child towards an economic imperative, to support parents and carers to work.

I am sure you will all have seen a similar drop in the numbers of children returning to early years provision following the first lockdown and the impact this is having on providers who have either not re-opened or are in a precarious financial position due to a drop in numbers accessing the provision. What we don’t fully understand yet is the impact this will have on the long term sustainability of provision in our local areas.

For the generation of our youngest children who have experienced the pandemic, my hope is that we can quickly turn our narrative back to the benefits way beyond, and in addition to, supporting access to work. To focus on the importance of play, social interaction, the development of independence, risk taking, speech and language and building on the strengths of families to support children in their early development - championing on behalf of our youngest children and the importance of getting the best start in life.

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