Tuesday 14 February 2023

I'm worried about what I'm seeing in the early years: we should all be worried about growing educational inequality

You're here because you care about educational quality and equality.

So I think you’ll be worried about the most recent information about children’s learning by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) in England, when most are 5-years old. 

There is a huge and growing gap between disadvantaged children and all others at the end of the EYFS. This is a longstanding problem: England is a country where how well you do in education is strongly associated with how well-off your parents areThat's very different from countries like Canada, where half my family are from. 

Here's the background: at the end of their reception year, teachers are required to check children’s learning against 17 Early Learning Goals. 

The Department for Education explains that ‘Children are defined as having reached a Good Level of Development (GLD) at the end of the EYFS if they have achieved the expected level for the ELGs in the prime areas of learning and the specific areas of mathematics and literacy. This helps teachers and parents to understand broadly what a child can do in relation to national expectations.’


It is important to note that we can’t compare the statistics for the Good Level of Development (GLD) in the summer of 2022, because the DFE revised the EYFS Statutory Framework in 2020. 


So, after the health warning and the background, let's consider how worrying the headline figures are. 

Overall, 65.2% of children achieved the GLD in the summer of 2022.  


However, when we look at the outcomes for disadvantaged children, we see a very stark difference. 

Only 49.1% of children eligible for free school meals achieved the GLD, compared to 68.8% of those not known to be eligible for free school meals. That’s a whopping 19.6 percentage point gap.

(Note: Disadvantage is defined rather crudely by eligibility for free school meals. This isn’t an ideal measure, but it’s the best one we have.)


(Source: Office for National Statistics)


It might strike you that this emphasis on children’s learning at the end of the Reception year, when nearly all are 5-years-old, is misplaced. Surely there is plenty of time for those children from disadvantaged backgrounds to catch up?


Unfortunately, based on previous analysis, it’s very unlikely that the affected children will catch up. In previous years, that gap by the end of the Reception year has doubled by the end of primary school. In turn, that gap doubles again by the time young people take their GCSES. As a result, young people who have been eligible for free school meals are only half as likely as the rest of their classmates to achieve the top grades. (Source: the Education Endowment Foundation).


That’s why Professor Becky Francis, the Chief Executive Officer of the Education Endowment Foundation, comments that ‘once children fall behind, it is hard for them to catch up and they are likely to fall further behind throughout school’.


Sadly, it seems this high level of educational inequality, where children’s learning is so strongly associated with family income, might be affecting younger children even more. 

That’s what many of the 600 delegates reported at Newham’s 2023 Early Years Conference. Many told me that children aged 2, 3 and 4 now are struggling even more than the children they were working with last year and the year before – especially those who are living in poverty.


Why might it be that the younger children are even worse affected?


First of all, some important cautions. This section of my blog is a mix of anecdote and speculation. It’s what people are saying, but there is no data to back that up. Secondly, young children are resilient. Children aged 2 and 3 having difficulties now, may well bounce back in the years to come. 


All the same, the experiences of practitioners on-the-ground are important to note. 


At Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre, where I am the headteacher, our initial assessments of the children who started nursery in the autumn of 2022 suggest that they are struggling more with aspects of early learning, like communication. Staff perception is that there are more children struggling with their emotions. Children who find it hard to be around others, who get quickly upset and angry, or withdrawn. Of course, these strong emotions are typical in early childhood. There are also many children who are loving their time in nursery, making friends and playing, and overall having a jolly good time. But it is noticeable that more children are finding nursery life hard and needing a great deal of caring, loving support from staff to get through the day. 


There are also many more children presenting with significant health needs, or special educational needs, than usual. It’s worth noting that many of those children are presenting with needs because they missed key earlier experiences in their childhood, like playing with friends or coming to our Children’s Centre. We need to keep a watchful eye over them and support them to enjoy these experiences a little later than usual – and I am sure many will be fine in the longer term. 


This worrying picture is true of our children aged 3 and 4, and more so for our children aged 2. When I have talked with early years practitioners around the country, I’ve heard similar accounts – but also been struck by the variation. In some wealthier areas, the impact of lockdowns on children’s development and happiness seems to have been smaller. 


When we look at the timelines of the Covid-19 lockdowns, we can see in a simple way how different age-groups of children were affected. 


Why do the younger children seem to have been hit so hard?


At this stage, I can only share hypotheses and anecdotes. I hope that careful research and analysis will offer us a clearer picture. 


Perhaps the picture we are seeing reminds us, powerfully, of how important those first 1,000 days are to children’s development, health and happiness. Children who were born into lockdowns, or experienced several lockdowns in their first 24 months, didn’t have anything close to an ordinary first 1,000 days. Their parents also did not get anything like the usual support from the NHS or other services. Bringing a baby into the world can be a hard enough experience at the best of times. Without social or professional support, perhaps it’s been even tougher – and perhaps this has affected the children as well as their parents. 


It might also be that it was an impossible task for many parents to juggle working from home online with remote learning for their older children, and meeting the needs of a young baby. Perhaps the baby was the least resilient to adversity of anyone in household. 

We already know that child poverty is toxic to children’s healthy and happy development. As researcher Hope Oloye explains, children who are growing up in households that are noisy, over-crowded and damp are affected physically and psychologically in negative ways. 


For poorer families with children in the first two years of life, there was perhaps little to mediate this during lockdowns – in the way of professional support, services outside the home, or playgroups to join in with. Once lockdowns were over, it wasn’t long before the cost-of-living crisis hit. Practitioners at the Newham conference spoke of seeing cold, hungry children crying as they come into nursery.  Think of children waking up in freezing and damp houses, getting dressed, and making their way to nursery in clothes and coats that are too thin to keep them warm during a cold snap. We can hardly expect them to bounce happily into play and learning once they arrive. 


I’m worried about the youngest and poorest children in the early years. I am worried about the apparent rise in the numbers of children with special needs in the last couple of years. I don’t think we are doing enough to protect these groups of children from the after-shocks of the lockdowns or from the current cost-of-living crisis. The research tells us that high-quality childcare and early education is good for all children, and disproportionately positive for children from lower-income backgrounds. Early education, and education more widely, are important. 

But we need to go well beyond that and ask ourselves the difficult questions. Why have we done so little to lift families out of poverty in recent decades? Why have we done so little to help children at the sharp end of lockdowns and the cost of living crisis? Why have we let so many services for children with SEND and their families get so close to collapse?

No-one's future is determined at the age of 5. 

But we owe at least this much to every child: the best possible chance to thrive, learn well, and be healthy and happy throughout their childhood and beyond. 




  1. Such important points. I had my third child during first lockdown, and am also a childminder. The difference in his experiences in his first 1,00 days have been phenomenal. In our area baby and toddler groups have never recovered and most are high priced classes which exclude so many children from poorer backgrounds having a chance to socialise. He has been seen at his 6 week check and jabs and that’s it, and for so many that’s not enough. For so many, especially those in power, we have moved on from lockdown but without a second thought to the children born, or very young at this time!

    1. Many Health Visitor services haven’t been reinstated since covid too. I had my second just before lockdown and my third 6 months ago. Neither have been seen beyond 6-8week checks.

  2. Agree with all the above… but also hate that within 9 months of children being in reception we are making judgments on their attainment via the ELGs and no not all children are 5 by then… it’s got to be about the progress , not crude attainment data on whether a child can write a sentence

    1. Absolutely agree I also think that our youngest children are doubly disadvantaged- 12 months is a huge amount of time when you are 4 and 5 and the difference between those that are autumn born and those that are summer born is phenomenal yet they are all measure at the same point! It needs to be a more equitable system to be able to use as a measure!

  3. As a Portage worker, we managed to keep our service going and reduce the impact of lockdown by seeing the children in the centres. These children have transitioned successfully into nurseries or specialist provision. However, we have an increased caseload of children presenting with social communication difficulties, that are awaiting an initial assessment and we are struggling to get them into provisions as the nurseries are heavy with children needing significant support already.

  4. I am an EY/SEN lead based in Middlesbrough in an area of high poverty. Our EYs caters for children aged 2 to 5. I have taught at this school for 20 years and I can honestly say it is scary the number of children we have this year within our preschool with SEN needs. 5 out of 16 preschoolers are on the MAAT pathway, I have just completed my fifth EHCP since September. Then out of the 16 over half are none verbal. I spend my days worrying how we meet the needs of these children. We do the very best we can, however, we are nearing crisis point. The Government are failing our children, yet are happy to pile on more pressure with limited resources.

    1. Same! SEND figures are through the roof! And it begs the question are these as a result of environmental factors or genetic! The government are massively failing these children in the LA I work in there is no such thing as early identification it’s expected that we just crack on as normal in EYs deferring the problem until they are older and we have completed the plan do review cycle over and over again just to make sure we know what we are talking about! It makes me so angry that we failing these children 😢

  5. Fabulous analysis of this growing problem which will most definitely blight a significant proportion of our future generation.
    Three things I want for them to help their next steps:
    1. Access to full time 30 hour places at settings graded good and better- to be prioritised to all 2-3 year olds, especially those from vulnerable situations such as developmental delay or social disadvantage- (not just for working parents!)
    2. More time, obviously funding and training to health visitors (the only links with some pre-schoolers) to identify needs a lot earlier.
    3. More skills in ALL PVI settings, expertise and funding to truly give these children the best start wherever they are.
    4. A last wish :bring in a law banning technology from under 5s: the biggest thief of language development:(.

  6. I am pondering on all this from afar, so I might have this all wrong. I would like to add my thoughts, but discard them if they don't fit. This discussion is in my opinion essential, but I see so many strands in this geographic area having repeated themselves over time. The work that has been done using the philosophy and strategies at Sheringham, but perhaps there could be a step further back in the lives of parents. There are many reasons why very young children are experiencing the difficulties mentioned above (everything from under employment, newcomer transition challenges, homelessness, food insecurity, and other social challenges) but there are also factors that involve a paucity of parent understanding of child development and how to support meaningful play, language, health and positive behaviour. A lack of opportunity, space and parental well-being is an enormous factor, with maternal depression remaining an factor in the ability to relate to little ones, attach and build relationships and language. Play places with all kinds of resources exist, but whether or not parents attend is another matter. Social connections, meeting places and parent support are accessible, but the familial networks, and old-world -style health visitors require enormous funding to be effective. The kind of programmes that merely look for developmental challenges and point to early intervention rarely offer the parent the kind of ongoing help they need to parent effectively. Those who have children who are diagnosed have additional burdens. Of course, it takes significant amounts of time to assist parents to navigate how they get help and take advantage of what's on offer.
    years ago, I recall going crazy shouting indoors in Stratford E15 with a screaming baby with cerebral irritation. I don't know how he survived. It was the student social worker in an upstairs flat who came and took the baby from me for a little while who made a difference; community helps. We can know the baby-care information theoretically and still need human support. Parent blaming isn't helpful, and is incredibly unfair, but being a parent these days is even harder; like swimming in mud and being required to walk uphill backwards. There are all kinds of programmes in place where government agencies and charities dovetail their efforts, but being a parent these days isn't easy if your own role models as a child were not strong. Parent support is essential, but I think we need to give a skeleton of understanding and skill before they think they need it. This means that they need to have some skills and knowledge before they become parents, at school and in the community. Knowing stages of growth is one thing, but knowing how to get support is another. Many years ago I was involved with some child care classes offered at what was Brampton Manor School.These offered very practical child development/parenting/health material and various observational experiences for pupils. Some were already parents, and they were sometimes feted by their peers and teachers...maybe feeding into the much needed attention and emotional emptiness that got them to become parents.
    Working in Newham decades ago gave me some idea of the territory and the feel of the place, but much has changed. I taught nursery nurses at West Ham College, but I learned more from them as this was completely new territory to me back then.
    If we were proactive and took steps to address the current social ills in an even bigger-picture way we might make a difference. Clearly we are not going to wave a wand to rectify all the social ills, although many dream of that.I am not insinuating that those on the ground floor have not been working themselves into the ground, and have great wisdom, but there are some missing pieces. They are always costly. Maybe those well paid footballers could fund some programmes? I haven't followed West Ham lately?

    Just some thoughts.