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Research School Network: Early Years during the pandemic: cause for celebration or concern? The Royal Foundation’s ​‘State of the Nation’ report is the largest public study ever conducted on the early years

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Early Years during the pandemic: cause for celebration or concern?

The Royal Foundation’s ​‘State of the Nation’ report is the largest public study ever conducted on the early years

by East London Research School
on the

Half a million people have given their views about the early years: now it’s time for all of us in early years, childcare and education to think through what people have told us, writes Julian Grenier.

A couple of years ago, the Education Endowment Foundation’s report on Working with parents to support children’s learning neatly summarised a challenge.

Working with parents is important. Levels of parental engagement are consistently associated with better academic outcomes. The biggest research study into the early years in England, the EPPSE project, similarly found that the home learning environment had the biggest impact on children’s early development. A high-quality home learning environment has an even bigger impact than high-quality early education and childcare. That finding remained true even when parental income and qualifications were controlled for.

With parenting, it’s not who you are that makes the difference.

It’s what you do.

So where is the challenge?

The problem is that we don’t know how to involve all parents in ways that support children’s learning. In a nutshell, parents who are already keen to support their children’s learning are also keen to engage in activities and workshops run by Children’s Centres, early years settings and schools.

But those we’d most like to reach, are the least likely to come along. If they do come along, they are the most likely to drop out of programmes.

This has, of course, been especially significant during the Covid-19 pandemic. With many young children locked down, the home learning environment has become even more important. We learnt at lot at East London Research School about ways to support children locked down or self-isolating at home. We shared our learning in a series of blogs, starting here.

This still feels like an emergent area of practice and research. The Royal Foundation’s findings have made me stop and think.

With half a million responses, we should certainly take heart: the public is really interested in what makes a difference to children’s futures.

But we should also be concerned. For decades, we’ve been sharing the evidence that it’s the first five years which are the most important time for children’s development.

We’ve tried our hardest to get that message across.

We haven’t succeeded, yet.

Only a quarter of parents recognise that. There is also a low level of awareness that the most significant period of brain development is from birth to two years old.

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The report also gives us a worrying insight into the mental health of parents. The pandemic has heightened anxiety and stress amongst parents. My first-hand experience suggests that this has been an underlying issue for many years, especially in poorer neighbourhoods which are blighted by violence, crime, racism, bad housing and a poor overall environment. These are places which are hostile to childhood.

That tells me that we need to work to improve family life in England, and create family and child-friendly spaces. We need to offer much more help to parents who struggle with poor mental health.

Focusing on what we can do directly in early years, we can make a very positive difference to the lives of young children and their families by providing high-quality early education and childcare. Early Years settings are often the only safe, warm and inviting places for children in their neighbourhoods.

But it also strikes me that some of our efforts to engage parents might be triggering those difficult feelings that have been reported, of anxiety and insecurity. By trying to do something good, we might inadvertently be causing harm. The Royal Foundation’s finding about how many parents feel judged’ is worrying.

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Many of us send out lots of ideas for home learning. We invite parents in for workshops so they can learn about how to help their child. Aren’t these exactly the types of activities which might lead to parents feeling judged’?

It’s easy to imagine how a parent might feel they aren’t doing enough.

Or they might feel that others are doing a much better job than them.

It’s easy to imagine how growing anxiety and a feeling of being judged might lead a parent not to engage with their child’s setting, or with other local services.

Let’s stop and consider what matters most to young children. The WHO has recently published guidelines on improving early childhood development for children from birth to 3 years old. They make the important point that there are many different components of nurturing care for children. Their number one recommendation is both rather obvious, and yet also striking.

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So, is there a risk that when we focus so much on early learning, we increase parental anxiety – especially at a time like this?

With increased feelings of anxiety come a diminishing capacity to make time and space for your child. Stress makes it hard to be responsive to your child. It’s all too easy to get into negative cycles of feeling angry or overwhelmed by your child’s needs and demands. I touched on that experience when my pre-term daughter came home from the Special Care Baby Unit and was unsettled, fretful and sleepless. It was a very hard time.

What worries me especially, is that the most vulnerable parents will probably suffer the most. In turn, their children will probably miss out the most. We need to do much more to support parents in offering their children consistent and responsive caregiving.

That isn’t to say that early learning doesn’t matter. It’s hugely important. It’s well established that once children fall behind in their early years, it gets increasingly difficult for them to catch up. Children who leave school without basic skills in communication, reading, writing and maths are more likely to live in poverty as adults and to have poorer physical and mental health.

What I’m arguing is that we need to make sure we prioritise children’s and parents’ wellbeing. We need to be aware of the powerful feelings of being judged’ that many parents have, and how these feelings can tip into anxiety. We need to build our work with both children and parents on the solid foundations or warm and responsive relationships with clear boundaries.

That’s why the virtual destruction of the Children’s Centre programme in recent years is so lamentable, and so likely to hit disadvantaged children the hardest. As A couple of years ago, the Sutton Trust commented that we need to stop the piecemeal closure of these vital community resources’. Sadly, more have closed since then. It doesn’t even feel piecemeal any more.

So are there any ways forward? Whilst this is a very difficult time for all of us in the early years, it’s also a good time to start thinking about how we might rebuild and do things differently.

Here are three suggestions:

  1. Protect and improve Children’s Centres and other outreach services for young children. The Early Intervention Foundation’s recent report starkly warns us all that the lack of recent national monitoring and evaluation of approaches to children’s centres and hubs means that there is little robust evidence on how they are currently being delivered and how effective they are…Progress in growing the effective use of evidence-based interventions as part of early childhood services appears to be at risk, due to funding pressures and a lack of robust local evaluation.’ We need to redouble our efforts to apply the best evidence, and develop appropriate evaluation strategies. We were delighted to work with the EIF on this at East London Research School. We’re looking forward to piloting some of their new tools for evaluation and strategic planning.
  2. Systematically review our parental support and outreach. We need to work harder to build relationships with parents who find our services hard to reach. Trust and positive relationships are the foundations for changing this. We need to build on those relationships to engage more in evidence-based, supportive home visiting and parenting programmes. These can help parents to be more responsive to their children’s care needs. They can help parents to provide their with clear, sensible boundaries for behaviour. Without these foundations, attempts to promote home learning won’t just fail – they may also cause damage. As the EEF explain, informal, welcoming environments are the most important factors for parents to attend group sessions’. The EEF guidance report also recommends regular home visits for younger children with greater needs. This can be an effective approach for parents that struggle to attend meetings in settings, and for building relationships.’
  3. Engage parents and the community more to meet these challenges. All too often, disadvantaged communities experience grant-funded support that’s only just got started when it runs out of money and closes down. Change over the longer term requires us to find and build on the assets in our local communities. Many parents in poorer communities are suffering from a dreadful sense of isolation and loneliness. We need to help parents connect. As professionals, we need to hand over more power and responsibility for change to our communities.
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