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Research School Network: Working with parents to support children’s learning in the early years: thinking under pressure During the first Covid-19 lockdown, why did our Research School take inspiration from a young medic in a prisoner of war camp?

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Working with parents to support children’s learning in the early years: thinking under pressure

During the first Covid-19 lockdown, why did our Research School take inspiration from a young medic in a prisoner of war camp?

If you’re short on time, you might want to start with our 10 Top Tips for supporting children’s learning at home.

I’m writing this blog at Sheringham Nursery School, on a cold but sunny November day. I can hear hundreds of children playing happily in the autumn sunshine.

Sheringham

Back in the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were more Covid-related deaths here in Little Ilford than anywhere else in England.

Little Ilford is in Newham, east London, where we had a large temporary morgue at one end, and London’s Nightingale Hospital at the other.

Newham has London’s 3rd highest child poverty rate, 2nd highest unemployment rate, and the highest proportion of residents in low paid work. Around 2,500 households live in temporary housing. 98% of children speak English as an Additional Language.

During the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, over 170 children from Sheringham Nursery School were at home without any formal provision for their early education. We had around 40 children remaining in our nursery and we were supporting many vulnerable families at home through the lockdown with emergency food and baby supplies. Even though we were in the middle of this storm, we were determined to hang onto our core mission as a Research School. We set out to work the best available evidence in the interests of every child and family.

In this five-part blog, we’re going to explore those choices and share what we know about the impact. We’re grateful to the partners who have generously shared their insights and their stories: the staff at The Grove Family Centre and Nursery School, team EasyPeasy and team KeepMi.

But before we get into the details, a few words about our inspiration.

It would be natural, in a time of severe pressure on us all, to focus on day to day survival. And we did. There were days when it was important to give the children on roll during the lockdown loving care, and think about early education later.

There were days when our leadership team were out delivering the emergency food parcels from #HelpNewham to keep families going with basic necessities.

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Our inspiration to keep focused on learning and research came from a source that might seem unlikely: the experiences of British prisoners of war in Saloniki, and most notably the actions of one of them. Archibald Cochrane.Here’s the story.

Cochrane is a young doctor who happens to be a fluent German-speaker, so he is put in charge’ as medical supervisor for all of the prisoners.

SWJPCC059 12 Figure2

He notices the death toll is rising, and that deaths are preceded by severe hypoproteinemic ankle edema or hunger edema, which he is suffering from himself.

In these very extreme circumstances, he makes an extraordinary decision. He remembers from his medical studies that edema can be caused by vitamin B1 deficiency which can be remedied with yeast.

He sets up a double-blind randomised control trial. Some prisoners get yeast, others are in a placebo group and just get Vitamin C. No-one, not even the German authorities, knows who is in which group.

The trial proves that he was right to suspect vitamin B1 deficiency: the yeast-group do much better than the others. Once he persuades the guards to include yeast in the rations, the death rate falls sharply.

Of course, we can’t compare our situation with Cochrane’s. And for ethical reasons, we couldn’t conduct an RCT because we needed to do the very best for every child – it would have been wrong to disadvantage some children to further our research interests.

All the same, we were inspired to think as coolly and rationally as we could, and draw on the best knowledge and evidence we had.

You can find out what we did, and how it went, in part 2 of this blog.

You can also read more about Cochrane and the famous Cochrane Collaboration – and there’s also more discussion in Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science.

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