Coronavirus is disrupting early years education. And it’s the poorest children who’ll suffer the most.

Young children and their teacher in a classroom
Jasmine Norden

Early years education has been severely impacted by coronavirus, according to a recent report, prompting concerns that disadvantaged children will lose out.

The report, conducted by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), found that 71% of staff in the early years sector were furloughed from March to August. During this period, 7% of staff left their posts and 4% were made redundant.

Sharon Birch, owner of a nursery in Hartlepool, told the Canary:

I had to let eight staff go, and they were the people that were on the lower contracts, that were part-time. It’s just turned everything on it’s head really, especially for vulnerable families. With less staff, you lose some of your quality.

There’s a lot of children that come from disadvantaged backgrounds whose parents decided not to come to nursery, because either they couldn’t with the restrictions or when they could, they decided to keep them at home.

There’s going to be huge gaps. And yes you can make a lot of that up, in some cases, but not in every case. And especially for these vulnerable children, it’s essential – that’s why we have the two-year-old grant, for those children from those backgrounds to access early years. That’s why we have it to help them with their development and their education. And if they haven’t been able to access that, or they’ve chosen not to for quite valid reasons, that’s going to have a knock on effect as we move forward.

The impact on disadvantaged children

Research in July by the Sutton Trust concluded that missing out on good early years education would affect disadvantaged children the most by widening gaps in how ready children are for school.

It further found that early years education providers have needed government support during lockdown to cope with financial pressures. This impact was felt strongly in deprived areas, with 34% of providers worrying they would not be able to continue operating in 2021.

Many parents reported that not being able to return to their early years education provider had impacted their child’s wellbeing, as well as their emotional and social development.

Peter Lampl, chair and founder of the Sutton Trust, said:

It is deeply concerning to see further evidence of the pandemic’s damaging impacts on the early years sector. The Sutton Trust’s own research has highlighted that a third of early years providers in deprived areas believe they may have to close within a year.

The early years are the vitally important first stage of the education process. We know that a high-quality workforce are an important part of delivering this, so it is worrying that this report suggests a likely worsening of the staffing crisis after the furlough scheme ends.

It is vital that the sector is supported through these uncertain times, so that we are able to continue to provide the early learning and development that is so crucial for social mobility.

The problems facing early years workers

But problems in the early years’ sector are not new. Before the pandemic, the Nutbrown review, conducted in 2012, raised concerns about standards for qualifications for early years workers declining. In light of this, the researchers suggested the early years workforce may not be equipped with the skills to provide high-quality early years education.

According to the Sutton Trust, the situation has not improved, with the sector still showing high turnover in staff, especially among higher-qualified members.

The Sutton Trust suggested that the government needed to invest in the sector to repair this problem.

However, these existing problems have been “exacerbated’ by the pandemic. Speaking about the report, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:

The Coronavirus has only exacerbated the serious challenges the Early Years sector was already facing. …

Government inaction is jeopardising the education of millions of children, who are missing out on vital early years education and hindering the ability of parents looking to return to work. Access to good quality early years education vastly improves future educational attainment and the life chances of those pupils, and can significantly improve social mobility.

Featured image via Flickr/spiraltri3e

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