We are a group of Parents, Early Years Professionals and Campaigners,
We are increasingly worried by the ongoing social isolation of young children, in addition to continued calls to close formal childcare settings. Preschool children and toddlers are at extremely low risk from contracting Covid-19 themselves, and there is growing evidence that they are unlikely to transmit it to adults, especially in educational settings.(1) Despite this, ongoing restrictions continue to impede every area of Early Years development. We fully support the continuation of access to nurseries and preschools but are deeply concerned that the Government’s overall response is creating a ticking time-bomb of health risks as these children proceed into adulthood.
The vital importance of early years development is undisputed by research, setting them up with the necessary social skills and emotional resilience to become healthy, well-rounded adults. Effective learning of key skills such as communication, sharing, and understanding emotions all require interaction with others. Such opportunities cannot be effectively facilitated by primary caregivers at present given the current and long-standing restrictions on household mixing. The Early Years Foundation Stage recognises that almost all young children’s learning is done through playing with other children, but not all children have access to the services remaining open.
First, review the support bubble guidelines to encompass every family with young children
Play is a fundamental right and, for young children, playing with and around others is a necessity and not a luxury. Household mixing has been illegal in much of the country for many months now, and an overwhelming majority of parent and child groups failed to reopen following the lifting of the first lockdown. The ongoing denial of socialisation opportunities will have a detrimental effect on the development of emotional and communication skills.
Ofsted estimates that 36% of under 5s did not attend formal childcare in 2019 (2) and the Department for Education is also reporting that daily attendance rates at nurseries have dropped to 54% during the current lockdown.(3) It is therefore fair to assume that the majority of under 5s are currently unable to socialise in groups. Young children over the age of 5 can’t even rely on an exemption from the current ‘rule of 2’ for exercise, effectively banning them from meeting a single friend outside at all.
There are also child protection implications to children not interacting with anyone outside of their home for months. The risk to adults must be weighed against the risk to children’s development and mental wellbeing. The current policy of stopping support bubbles at 12 months is arbitrary and does not recognise the severe practical issues and isolation that many children and families now face. The United Nations Human Convention on the Right of the Child defines early childhood as the period from birth to 8. Extending support bubbles to encompass every family with a child aged 8 and under would enable all children to access social development opportunities, whilst also helping to relieve some of the stress that families are currently experiencing.
Secondly, guarantee that formal childcare settings will remain open for all who wish to access them during the remainder of the pandemic restrictions.
Ofsted found that suddenly closing formal childcare throughout spring 2020 ‘significantly impacted the learning and development of children’.(4) Doing so again could be devastating for their future wellbeing. Ofsted’s recent early years reporting also found young children are more anxious, less confident and have regressed in key areas such as potty training. 53% of providers thought that children had fallen behind in their personal, social and emotional development, with the most obvious negative effects on physical and communication development in children who live in poverty, or whose parents could not spend quality time with them.
Many working parents struggled significantly with caring for their children whilst working and the economic impact of closing Early Years settings should not be overlooked. Children are impacted by the added stress placed on their parents (6) , whilst job losses also lead to increased deprivation for all the family. We must prioritise children’s wellbeing.
Finally, ensure that the risk posed to children’s futures is properly assessed when making any future decisions on restrictions.
We may not have been able to control the introduction of Covid-19 in our society, but we can act now to protect Early Years development, which will in turn protect the NHS from dealing with an unprecedented mental health crisis in the future. This is the best chance children have to develop their EQ, something that is already at risk after spending 10 months of their life under some form of restriction. We must begin to take proper consideration of the risks posed by continuing with the current course of action. Children’s horizons and futures are being narrowed as a direct result of Government policy. Their health, happiness and productivity depend on the decisions that are made today.
- Sharif A Ismail et al (December 2020) “SARS-CoV-2 infection and transmission in educational settings” The Lancet – https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30882-3/fulltext
- COVID-19 series: briefing on early years, October 2020 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/933836/COVID-19_series_briefing_on_early_years_October_2020.pdf
- Covid: Early years staff safety ’cause for concern’. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-55758120
- Childcare and Early Years Survey of Parents in England, 2019 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/853358/CEYSP_2019_Report.pdfCovid: Early years staff safety ’cause for concern’
- Susan Tough & Dawn Kingston (September 2014) “Prenatal and postnatal maternal mental health and school-age child development: a systematic review” Maternal Child Health Journal https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259387458_Prenatal_and_Postnatal_Maternal_Mental_Health_and_School-Age_Child_Development_A_Systematic_Review