Fundamental but Forgotten - the Early Years Sector

New guidance from Public Health England provides more evidence of the interconnected nature of health, care and education, and of the fundamental role early years practitioners play in supporting young children’s speech, language and communication development.  But with the early years sector struggling to survive in the wake of the pandemic, many children may miss out on this much needed support.  Where is the support for the early years sector?

At the end of October, Public Health England (PHE) published its guidance in support of local areas efforts to improve speech, language and communication in the early years. The guidance recommends a system-wide approach from birth to school age with input from all professionals involved in a child’s early development. The approach involves universal services such as midwifery and health visiting, and more targeted approaches such as the entitlement to 15 hours of free early years provision for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds and specialist language support services. An important part of this approach is consistent messaging to parents about the importance of early language development, and the provision of information and resources that will help them support their child’s early language development. 

The ongoing promotion of early language development as a public health issue is welcomed.  Reports from the Early Intervention Foundation, Education Endowment Foundation and the most recent Bercow review highlight the continued concern about the language development of children, particularly in areas of social disadvantage. The global crisis represented by the spread of COVID-19 can only serve to exacerbate this issue. As such, the PHE guidance is timely.

PHE recognises that implementing this guidance requires a “confident, well-skilled workforce…” and views training of all professionals working with young families as an integral part of the strategy.  A huge part of this work has been to train Health Visitors in the identification of children at risk of language difficulties, incorporating a new language measure in the two and a half-year-old review.  However, much of the work needed to address any identified language and communication needs will fall on the early years sector - teachers, nursery staff and childminders. We know that high quality early education plays a pivotal role to improve a child's life chances, above all for children who are more disadvantaged. The Effective Provision of Preschool, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) project found that access to high quality preschool provision influenced outcomes for children aged 11 years, particularly those from areas of disadvantage. Language and communications skills especially are at the basis of any future learning.  

The guidance from PHE comes at a time when the impact of COVID-19 on children’s outcomes is under public scrutiny. And while we do not yet know the full impact on children’s educational outcomes and socioemotional wellbeing, initial analyses suggest that children from a disadvantaged background are disproportionately impacted (e.g. The Edge Foundation; Education Endowment Foundation; Children’s Commissioner). As such, the role of Early Years settings in helping families with young children to navigate the current situation cannot be overstated. 

There is little doubt that additional training in supporting children’s language and communication skills would be welcomed.  The latest OFSTED briefing suggests that while communication and language development is not a concern for all settings following lockdown, it is a concern for some, particularly for children who did not have the opportunity to spend quality time with parents during lockdown because of work commitments for example. In our recent survey of 33 early years practitioners, 85% identified communication and language as one area of the EYFS curriculum they were particularly concerned about as a result of the pandemic.  This was second only to personal, social and emotional development (PSED) (91%).  In addition, 73% said this was the area they would prioritise moving forward, again, second only to PSED (91%).  In Bradford, a programme of continuing professional development for Early Years practitioners has been implemented as part of the Better Start Bradford initiative. Focused on children’s language and communication development, the ICAN Early Talk training programme has been delivered to 22 settings, with 206 practitioners including 3 childminders now having received the training.  The training focuses on increasing knowledge and skills around children's early language development, as well as developing partnerships with parents to help them support language development in the home. We spoke to six practitioners during lockdown and found that children’s language and communication development was a key concern.  We also asked them about the impact of the ICAN training on their practice. All of the practitioners agreed that the training had made a positive difference to the way they interacted with children and families, even those practitioners who had received similar training previously. Moreover, the training played an important role in helping practitioners provide remote language and communication input to families during lockdown. 

What was striking from both our interviews and the survey data was the level of support offered by settings during the pandemic, from regular phone calls and resource packs, to socially distanced visits and food parcels.  Clearly, early years settings have been a lifeline for many families with young children, a finding mirrored in a recent report published in Nursery World.  Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting a sector that was already struggling to survive. Over the last ten years, reports have consistently called for more investment in the early years workforce (e.g. Nutbrown Review; Education Policy Institute; Sutton Trust).  The Forgotten Sector report from the Early Years Alliance paints a sobering picture of the future of the Early Years sector.  Of 3,000 settings surveyed in April, a quarter reported that they were somewhat or very unlikely to be operating in 12 months’ time.  In May, 6,000 settings were surveyed and 69% reported that they expected to be operating at a loss in 6 months’ time.  The latest OFSTED briefing mirrors these concerns with 58% of settings facing financial challenges as a result of the pandemic, although only two thirds of settings reported that they were concerned about business closure.  Unlike schools, early years settings did not receive financial support to cover the costs of measures taken because of the pandemic e.g. purchasing PPE or additional cleaning costs.  The Forgotten Sector report highlights inconsistent and unclear guidance around the financial support available to settings and practitioners during the pandemic, including the exclusion of settings from the government’s “catch up” funding.  For a sector that plays such a fundamental role in children’s early experiences this lack of support seems counterintuitive.

The call from the PHE for more training in language and communication echoes other reports (e.g. the Communication Trust) and shows a recognition of how health, care and education are intertwined. And yet it comes at a time when the policy discourse is reverting to early years settings as providing just a childcare service to allow parents to work. Moreover, despite the continued evidence of the importance of the sector in supporting children and families, it is crumbling under the additional financial pressure resulting from the pandemic. The Early Years Alliance and the Sutton Trust have called for an urgent financial support package to help support the sector.  We urge the government to heed that call and enable the sector to continue its vital work in providing the best start in life for children across the country. 


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