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Children starting reception this term are expected to face the most challenging school start for generations, as new analysis from Nesta reveals that the average pupil in England missed more than a quarter of their early years education due to the pandemic.

In 2019, the average four-year old spent 25 hours a week at nursery - around three full days - in the year before they started school. The new analysis estimates that children starting reception this month will have only spent an average of 18 hours a week at nursery - just over two full days.

“With new reception classes starting this week, children are likely to need additional support to help them adjust to the school environment and catch up on some of the development they will have missed out on due to nursery closures,” says Louise Bazalgette, who leads projects aimed at improving school readiness for disadvantaged children.

There will be more struggling children who need extra support to help them to fulfil their potential

Louise Bazalgette

“No class is ever at exactly the same level, but there are likely to be even greater differences than usual this year due to the pandemic. There will be more struggling children who need extra support to help them to fulfil their potential. The Department for Education has provided catch up funding, but with only £80 per pupil it will be challenging to support the wide range of needs pupils may have in areas ranging from their social and emotional and physical development, to more academic areas like literacy and maths.

“Early years education is an incredibly important part of a child’s life, shaping educational and employment outcomes for decades to come. Nurseries and other forms of early years education including childminders provide much more than childcare, they offer essential opportunities for children to learn, play and socialise to develop skills that help them to get on in school. Free entitlements to early education also play a vital role in narrowing the outcome gap between richer and poorer children.”

The analysis found that nursery attendance fell dramatically at the start of the pandemic, recovering gradually after the first wave but never returning to pre-pandemic levels. From the start of the autumn 2020 term to the end of the summer 2021 term, the overall average attendance was 73% of previous levels.

“We found that the pandemic affected nursery attendance across the board, with no clear link between an area’s socioeconomic indicators and its nursery attendance,” explains Data Scientist Izzy Stewart, who led the analysis. “We also didn’t find any strong correlation between infection hotspots and poor attendance, suggesting that the effect was largely down to behavioural factors.”

The analysis was based on Department for Education figures for nursery attendance during the pandemic, with 2019 baseline levels calculated from the 2019 Childcare and Early Years Survey. Estimates for new reception starters are based on nursery attendance from the start of the 2020 autumn term (September, Week 37 of 2020) until the end of the 2021 summer term (July, Week 29 of 2021).

According to the 2019 Early Years Survey, the average 4-year-old spent 25 hours per week in a nursery setting. Attendance in 2020 between the above term dates was approximately 73% of expected pre-pandemic levels, which gives an average of 18 hours per four-year-old per week. Assuming an average eight-hour day, this equates to two days and two hours.

For more information on the analysis or to speak to one of the experts involved, please contact Harry Dayantis, Senior Media Manager, on [email protected]

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