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Building up the early years: let's start with what we don’t know

This first blog in a series looking at the early years uncovers some of the evidence gaps needing attention, especially in light of the significant impact of coronavirus, so that research can be effectively used to improve policymaking and service design.

It is hard to overstate the extent to which in little more than three months Covid-19 has changed fundamental aspects of all our lives. Given what we know about the impact a child’s early development can have on their later outcomes, it is critical that we understand the effects of the pandemic on the very youngest in our society.

Most of these children have not been able to attend their nursery or childminder, meaning reduced interaction with their peers. Many have missed out on immunisations and health checks as part of the Healthy Child Programme. And the majority of parents have not been able to attend their regular support groups, be it infant feeding or stay and play – with only some getting the help and support they need digitally. 

As a country, we will be dealing with the impact of Covid for many years to come, and there is a clear need for early intervention to be at the heart of the national response. But to do this we need to understand the likely impact on children in the context of what we already know and what we don’t know yet about what works to reduce risks and provide effective support. Here, we focus on two issues in particular: the impact of local early years services, and what it means for a child to be ‘school ready’.

We have already seen reports that lockdown is affecting certain risk factors known to affect children’s early progress, such as parental conflict and domestic violence, and the looming economic downturn is likely to exacerbate factors that pre-date the crisis, such as poverty and health inequalities. This crisis will also impact on children in different ways, depending on where they live, for example, or whether they have specific developmental requirements, such as special educational needs or if English is not their first language. Of critical importance is improving our understanding of the interrelationship between the different types of risk factors and how they are changing in the current context. 

The impact of local maternity and early years services

Even before the crisis there was a challenge to maximise the impact of local maternity and early years services on younger children’s development. We know that local areas are keen to use the best available evidence as they develop local early years services, but often they find the research difficult to apply in their context, lack the resources to commission and sustain evidence-based interventions, find it difficult to create suitable evaluation processes, and struggle to bring local coherence to the fragmented and often short-term national policy agendas for children. 

Now, services have been through a period of intense and rapid change to maintain some level of essential provision and find new ways of providing much-needed support. This is a critical time to understand the effect of the adaptations that local areas have made to their early years services and specific interventions. This is why we have made an offer of evaluation support to local areas who are seeking to understand the impact of services which have been adapted to virtual delivery. 

We not only need to evaluate these services in isolation, we need to understand their combined impact. This needs to sit alongside a better understanding of a child’s journey through the early years system, from universal programmes through the Healthy Child Programme to specialist support, such as speech and language therapy. Providing a better understanding of how all these aspects of a young child’s life within their specific local environment overlap and interact will allow local areas to design and deliver better support to ensure that children receive the support they need at the right time.

Understanding school readiness

Similarly, we lack a shared view of what it means for a child to be ‘school ready’, the key factors which impact on this, and the role that early years services can play. This has become even more salient as a result of Covid-19: research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Sutton Trust, for instance, has shown that disadvantaged children have had less access to electronic devices and the internet for home learning, have spent less time on home learning, and that their parents are less confident in directing their learning.

As children return to early education and care, we need to understand how the impact of this provision interacts with the impact of the home environment. Policy and research have often centered on the quantity of these two mainstays of a child’s early development. We need to shift our focus onto understanding the quality of both of these, and what this means for school readiness. 

Lastly, we shouldn’t focus solely on cognitive development when looking at school readiness. We need to understand social and emotional development, executive function and physical health as well, all of which are vital components of enabling a child to be ready to fully participate in their education and in wider society as they grow older. 

Working together to address these gaps

This is just a snapshot of some of the gaps we have identified in two key areas. There will be other critical issues to address, and we want to work in partnership with the research sector to define and address these – for example, via the Dartington Service Design Lab’s Question Generator. It is vital that we – the research sector – listen to the needs of frontline practitioners, parents and service providers, work together to address the most pressing concerns, and bring this research to bear on policymaking and service design. This will allow us to design and deliver better support to ensure that every child, no matter their starting point, is able to bounce back strongly.