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Covid-19: The children most likely to benefit from early childhood provision lost out the most

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 6 July 2022

Photo by Alex Albert

Claire Cameron, Katie Hollingworth, Hanan Hauari, Margaret O’Brien, Lydia Whitaker, Sarah O’Toole.

The Covid-19 pandemic took a heavy toll on everyone, but on some people more than others. Young children were not at especial risk of infection but the measures to control the spread of Covid affected every aspect of their lives, as our Families in Tower Hamlets project has shown.

The ‘stay at home’ order on 23 March 2020 and accompanying closures of early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings such as nurseries and schools to most children led to only 5–10% of children who usually attended early childhood settings doing so. Provision was only open for children of critical workers or those classed as vulnerable.

We found that young children in our Tower Hamlets study had a more extreme lockdown experience than most – there were few ways to escape the monotony of being indoors – and that social inequalities magnified the disadvantages some children faced.

Before the pandemic, attendance at ECEC services in Tower Hamlets had been growing from a comparatively low base. While fewer children than the national average met the standard for being ‘ready’ for school at age 5, by age 16, school attainment was better than national average. Pre-pandemic, 55% of families in Tower Hamlets were living in poverty, and unemployment figures were higher than average for London.

Our survey of families with young children in July-November 2020, when services were opening again, showed that many children no longer attended ECEC. The drop was particularly significant among South Asian families (a 16% reduction on pre-pandemic attendance) and among low income families (a 13% drop). By the time we surveyed the same families again in 2021, there were further reductions for these two groups – just 20% pf children of South Asian families were attending compared to 56% of White British/Irish families, and just 39% of children in low income (below £20k a year) households compared to 62% in high income (above £52k) families. Early results from other studies suggested similar findings in the UK and across Europe. The very children who were most likely to benefit from ECEC lost out the most in the pandemic.

Parents we spoke to in-depth were aware of the disruption to children’s routines, and their learning and development during this time. One mother told us:

“you know he had a routine in place, and as soon as lockdown hit he was just completely confined at home literally – for the last year of his life, I don’t think he even remembers what kind of things we accessed – we accessed a lot of play opportunities, he had access to you know a lot more children his age. So developmentally he was a lot more … if it wasn’t lockdown I think he would have developed.”     

Aside from ECEC, almost every other aspect of young children’s rich and varied lives in the city was curtailed by the lockdown measures in 2020 and 2021. Half of survey families did not have their own outdoor space. Not being able to go to playgrounds and parks, city farms, swimming pools, cafes, museums and zoos were all mentioned by parents as a big loss to everyday life. Asked about the impact on her, one mother said: “Daily activities, we can’t go swimming, we can’t go to the cafes, we can’t go to the children’s centres, everything’s changed”; while another remarked that “all the extracurricular things we did were all put on hold, all the children’s centres were closed so they couldn’t access anything. The libraries were closed…The farm was closed … so we literally couldn’t go anywhere, the parks were shut.” Children in South Asian and low income families were less likely to do physical activity outside every day or most days than White British/Irish families in 2020 and 2021.

Nearly all the parents we interviewed were concerned about their children’s development of speech and language, as well as their social development. Missing out on the stimulation, and predictability, of nursery and social life, and the inevitable isolation of being at home all day, was seen as contributing to children’s social anxiety and inhibiting usual acquisition of relationships. One mother reported that her child, about to start nursery, who had been ‘kept in’ … ’for a whole year and half … I think that’s going to have a dramatic effect on her and her character and her personality”. In 2021, over 60 percent of survey parents thought their 2 to 5-year-old child had been nervous or clingy in the preceding six months, and the proportion was higher among those who had children with disabilities, were on Universal Credit or on a low income.

During 2020 and 2021, more than 80 percent of survey parents were helping their children learn at home, although more White British/Irish parents and those in higher income households were reading to their children every day than South Asian parents or those on low incomes. But keeping up home learning for their very young children was difficult when they were also older children in the household. Few young children got the kind of one to one attention parents wanted to give them. As one parent said: “I wasn’t able to give him that time either – although we were at home I couldn’t give him that time because of constantly thinking about home education for the other children. You know because I didn’t want the other ones to lose out”.

By the time we spoke to parents again at the end of 2021, there were fewer concerns about child growth and development and more about children’s socialisation. On the whole parents thought their earlier concerns about language development had dissipated, helped in large part by going back to or starting at nursery or school. There were continuing worries about leaving children with others such as grandparents, and some children were still clingy or aggressive in their behaviour but overall there was a sense that the pandemic impacts on children’s day to day lives were coming to an end.

Never-the-less, our study suggests that early education, health and family support services will have an enormous hill to climb to set right the difficulties of life after Covid.

‘Want to know more? Contact Claire Cameron c.cameron@ucl.ac.uk


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