It is well established that high quality early years provision plays an important role in a child’s educational and socioemotional development, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds where it can reduce educational inequalities.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the closure of Early Years settings to most children between March and June 2020, with many not returning to settings when lockdown eased in the summer. Children starting school following the first lockdown were doing so after a period of instability and atypical environmental and social experiences. Disruption to education continued through the Autumn term and into Spring term where a third national lockdown closed schools in January – March 2021.
This project aimed to understand the experiences of September 2020 school starters, and if, and how, their experience differed from previous cohorts. It also aimed to give an indication of the factors influencing socioemotional wellbeing and educational outcomes, including experience of the pandemic, home learning activities, family demographics and child socioemotional wellbeing. Finally, the project explored how teaching practices during the Reception year might have changed as a response to the pandemic.
This study investigated the impact of school closures for Covid-19 on the attainment of pupils in Key Stage 1 in reading and maths, and on the gap between the attainment of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children. Children of this age are relatively less able to learn independently and therefore could be disproportionately affected by closures. In particular, Year 1 pupils had little reception year schooling, thus, missing out on crucial opportunities to develop socially and emotionally and to prepare for the transition from reception to KS1.
A separate longitudinal study is being conducted to examine the longer-term impact of school closures on attainment and social skills on this cohort of pupils. Details can be found here.
The research, conducted by a team from the University of York, NIESR and EPI, was carried out with Reception pupils over the academic year 2020 – 21. The study involved a total of 94 schools, 1105 families and Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) data for a total of 3253 children. Parent and school surveys were collected within each of the school terms, data from the tablet-based assessment Early Years Toolbox (EYT) was collected as well as EYFSP data.
Survey data suggests both parents and schools perceived that children had been disadvantaged in their socio-emotional wellbeing, language and numeracy skills when entering Reception classes in 2020 due to their experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. Although most parents and some schools felt there had been some ‘educational recovery’ achieved by the end of the academic year (2020−2021), EYFSP data collected from the sample of schools suggests there were less children who achieved a ‘Good Level of Development’ compared to the previous (pre-pandemic) YR cohort (2018−2019).
The proportion of children in the sample who gained a GLD at the end of Reception was 13 percentage points smaller than the proportion in the national data in 2018/19 (58.7% compared with 72% in 2018/2019). In an average-sized Reception class this could equate to three fewer pupils reaching a GLD as a consequence of the pandemic. These findings suggest a greater proportion of children, around 41% compared with 28% in 2019, could particularly benefit from an adjusted and responsive curriculum to support their learning and development.
All five learning areas where the study collected EYFSP data saw fewer children achieve at least expected, with Literacy (9.2) and Maths (8.6) seeing the largest percentage point differences with 2018/19 outcomes. Surveys suggest schools had concerns about children’s PSED (73.6%) and Communication and Language (63.9%) as well as Literacy (73.6%) at the end of year.
A smaller proportion of children eligible for FSM achieved at least expected in all learning areas compared to children not eligible for FSM. However, the percentage difference in outcomes between these groups in our sample and the 2018/19 cohort was minimal. Therefore, FSM eligibility does not seem to explain differences in outcomes.
Children learning EAL, however, do seem to have been differentially affected by the pandemic. The proportion of children learning EAL achieving a GLD in our sample was 16 percentage points smaller than the proportion who achieved GLD in the 2018/19 cohort.
It should be noted that the findings of this study should be interpreted with some limitations in mind, which mainly derived from the unprecedented circumstances in which this study took place. Continued disruption to education in the Autumn term led to only a small sample of schools completing EYT Assessments which prevent tracking children’s progress over the academic year. The third national lockdown in Spring term resulted in the cancelling of the national collection of EYFSP data, including the external requirements for data moderation. This meant outcomes from the previous pre-pandemic cohort could only be compared with a sample of school who self-selected to share their data and there is a need to be cautious about the reliability and validity of the assessments given the unknown amount of moderation that may have been completed.