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What does the best available evidence tell us about developing the maths skills of 3 – 7‑year olds?
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by East London Research School
Currently, one of the top concerns of educators is that the youngest children’s development has been hit hard by lockdowns. Communication underpins children’s thinking, learning and social development. So if children’s lost time in nursery has affected their language development then it is likely to affect their early learning more widely.
In this blog we discuss the assessment information we have for children aged three and four at Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre, where we all work. What insights might this provide? How might the lockdown in the spring term have affected the children?
Before we go any further, we’d like to offer some clear ‘health warnings’:
Please see our blog as the start of a professional dialogue. Please treat the data cautiously.
Here are key points for reflection and action:
Sheringham Nursery School is in Newham, east London. End Child Poverty report that Newham has the second-highest rate of child poverty in England, once housing costs are factored in [doc]:
Many families in our corner of Newham, Manor Park and Little Ilford, live in very poor-quality and overcrowded housing.
Around 95% of the children are learning English as an additional language. It’s a vibrant and energetic community, which faces serious health and economic challenges. In the first wave of Covid-19, this was the part of England with the highest death rate.
We have been using an app-based assessment system called Early Years Toolbox with our children for the last two years, after taking part in an EEF-funded trial.
The researchers who developed EYT say that ‘The Early Years Toolbox (EYT) was developed as an advance over existing measures to capture abilities that research has shown to be more predictive of later academic, social, emotional, cognitive and life outcomes.’
The EYT is an iPad-based assessment system that gives us an age-related outcome, which is helpful in several ways. For example, it gives us accurate data about summer-born children, who are the youngest in their year group. Other assessments can make it look as if summer-born children are low attainers, when they may be developing well relative to their age.
Children in 2021 compared to children in 2020
128 children took part in the EYT assessment in 2020, compared to 139 this year. We assessed both groups of children at roughly the same time in the spring. Looking at the children’s expressive vocabulary, we were very surprised that there was so little difference between the two cohorts.
In some respects, the 2021 children were developing more strongly in their expressive vocabulary, with 62% more children developing better than the average child of their age, or ‘above expected’:
Again, the differences were much smaller than we expected. The information suggests that maybe the biggest impact of missing nursery for a term is that fewer children’s vocabulary was above what’s typically expected for their age.
Making sense of this information
We’ve been mulling over the following interpretations. As previously stated, we need to bear the ‘health warnings’ in mind. We should also note that whilst expressive vocabulary is a good proxy indicator, there is more to communicating well than just having a good vocabulary.
Our first thought is that perhaps our home play and learn programme was highly-successful. We kept closely in touch with families. We shared regular information and video clips, and also ran online group sessions for children based around singing and stories. Parents gave us a very positive evaluation for our home learning support, which was based around the ‘chat, play, read’ messages from the Department for Education’s Hungry Little Minds campaign. That makes us think that the pandemic may have forced us to focus, like never before, on the best ways to support children’s home learning. We need to mainstream that support for home play and learning in the future, as a core part of our early education.
It is also possible that the impact of being at home might take a while to show up in the assessment information. When children are learning an additional language, changes ‘below the surface’ can take a while to show themselves. For example, many of our children have ‘silent phases’ in nursery when it’s likely they are absorbing a lot of new vocabulary and language structures in English. Maybe the children who attended nursery in the spring will show stronger progress in the summer term.
Early mathematical learning
The contrast between early maths and communication is very striking. Here, we see much bigger differences. The graph below shows the difference between the 2020 and the 2021 cohorts, most notably the 11 percentage point reduction in children whose development is what we’d expect to see for children of their age (‘within’):
Comparing the children who attended nursery during the spring with those who were at home, the differences again appear clear. There is 14 percentage point gap in the children whose development is below what we’d expect it to be for their age (‘below’) when we look at those who were in nursery during the spring term, and those who were at home:
This suggests that the pandemic has had more of an impact on children’s early numeracy than on expressive vocabulary here at Sheringham Nursery School.
Why might that be? Perhaps the most straightforward answer we’ve come up with as a team, is that our home play and learning programme prioritised early communication. We felt that a clear ‘chat, play, read’ message would work well with parents. Whilst there was a focus on early mathematics, it was not as systematic as the focus on communication and play.
It is also notable that parents of older children have commented that they felt least confident about supporting their children’s maths learning at home. Nearly three in five parents found maths the hardest subject to help their children with during lockdown, according to a poll commissioned by charity National Numeracy.
This might also be true for parents of nursery-aged children.
Another reason might be that children derive much more of their numeracy learning in the nursery than in the home, while the home has been providing good language experience for the children.
There’s an increasing focus in early years research on the importance of early mathematics as a strong predictor of children’s later success in school. So these gaps, if left unaddressed, might be important for preparing children for school.
Different groups of children
We also wanted to consider whether the experience of being at home might have affected groups of children differentially. We looked at gender differences. Whilst we can compare children by ethnicity, the numbers in the different groups are too small for this to be considered reliable.
When we look at gender, there are some very significant gaps. Our data suggest that coming to nursery has a very big impact on boys’ early numeracy. For example, twice as many of the boys at home are ‘below’ where we’d expect their development to be in early numeracy, when compared to those who came into nursery for the spring term.
Additionally, when we compare boys and girls who stayed at home during the spring term, there are significant differences:
Looking at vocabulary, again the differences between boys and girls who were at home during the spring term lockdown are apparent, though not as large as for numeracy:
On the other hand, outcomes in expressive vocabulary were much more equal for boys and girls who came to nursery throughout the spring term:
The apparently greater impact of missing nursery for boys as compared with girls fits with a general trend in the research that boys tend to be more ‘vulnerable’ to environmental upsets (personal communication from Professor Ted Melhuish). Research also suggests that boys experience fewer learning activities at home than girls [PDF].
We should keep an eye on this as we collect more data.
It’s important to bear in mind that none of these comparison groups are ‘matched’. There may be significant differences between this year’s cohort and last year’s. There may be important differences between the families who chose to keep their children at home, and those who chose to bring them into nursery throughout the lockdown period in the spring term. As a team, we are not struck at face value by any such differences. All the same, we cannot rule out these differences as potentially important.
What we are struck by is how much parents valued the support we offered to their children’s home learning. We’ve learnt more in the last year than in our whole careers. We’ve found great ways of building mutually respectful relationships, so we work together to support every child. We’ve found effective ways of harnessing the power of smartphones to encourage play at home, as well as conversation and shared enjoyment of stories and books. We need to combine our new learning, with what we already know about high-quality early education and care. By harnessing the two together, we can significantly improve our support for children’s early learning.
We would like to thank Professor Ted Melhuish and Professor Iram Siraj for their feedback and suggestions. However, we are responsible for the information, analysis and opinions expressed in this blog. If there are any errors, we made them (please get in touch to tell us)
What does the best available evidence tell us about developing the maths skills of 3 – 7‑year olds?
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