Over the last year in England, schools and early years settings have been through various stages of closure and reopening as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Noticeably, there have been different policies and guidance issued for primary schools and other early childhood settings. In the current lockdown, from 4 January, childminders, state nurseries and pre-school group-based provision have been expected to open to all children and families, while primary schools are predominantly open to ‘vulnerable’ children and the children of keyworkers. This has resulted in a real divide in how the birth to five phases of education has been regarded, with the majority of ECEC fully open and the reception year in school (for children in the year they become five years old) open for some children only.
This disparity in how the sector has been treated is telling. While there is single curricular framework from birth to five (the Early Years Foundation Stage) there has recently been very different focus. Pre-school provision has been focused on childcare whereas in the reception year there has been more emphasis in policy terms on learning outcomes. During COVID-19, this has played out as many early year’s settings were guided to focus on welfare, safety, and the provision of childcare initially for the children of keyworkers. In schools, the reception year has become embroiled in the ‘catch up’ agenda.
The narrative of the COVID-19 learning ‘gap’ is coming to dominate the headlines. In recent weeks, the media has regularly featured reports about ‘learning lost’ and the need for a ‘catch up’ agenda to recover ‘lost time after school closure’ (DfE 2020). Politicians have advocated summer schools and longer school days for a recovery curriculum. But for many, this has prompted questions about how learning loss is understood and whether this might be better thought of as learning disruption (Moss 2020) of the kind which occurs after natural disasters. Indeed, this idea of ‘lost learning’ has been questioned on the grounds that much of the research is speculative and that using extended absence from school as a proxy for lost learning is not a precise guide.
The question has also been asked: ‘unlike distance, can you recover lost time?’ Instead, commentators have proposed that as a community we need to build practically from where we are, not lament where we might have been.
A child-centred recovery
As an alternative, a coalition of professionals has called for a ‘summer of play’. Instead of extra lessons, catch-up summer schools and longer school days, these educators have said children should be encouraged to spend the coming months outdoors, being physically active and having fun with their friends. This group of advocates called ‘PlayFirstUK’ have written to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, appealing for a new emphasis on play, mental health and wellbeing as children emerge from lockdown (Guardian 2021). They have cautioned against intensive ‘catch-up plans’, intended to help pupils make up lost ground as a result of the pandemic, and that these could end up worsening children’s mental health and wellbeing, and have a negative effect on learning in the future. This is clearly a long-term project, not a quick fix.
Although the government ‘catch up Tsar’ Kevan Collins has suggested ‘children will need to be together and play’ there continues to be a push for extending the school day and catch up programmes.
At the same time, there have been appeals for a more child centred recovery and the outgoing Children’s Commissioner has called for the government to make children a priority as the world emerges from the pandemic. Many in the early childhood sector are supporting a COVID-19 response based on emotional wellbeing, in more than name only. It seems that the time is right for an urgent national conversation about what we want for young children in the months ahead.
As the Flourish Project say:
‘In a post COVID-19 world, educators must be supported in providing environments that nurture the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing of the children in their care.’
My name is Nathan Archer and I have worked in early childhood education since 1999. I trained as a Montessori teacher and have worked at the local and national level with a range of early years organisations. I recently completed a PhD at the University of Sheffield exploring the activism of early childhood educators and am currently a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds researching Childcare during COVID. @NathanArcher1
Department for Education (2020) What catch up funding is for Catch up premium – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
Flourish Project (2020) The need for a recovery curriculum COVID-THE NEED FOR A RECOVERY CURRICULUM (flourishproject.net)
Guardian 13 February 2021 Call for ‘summer of play’ to help English pupils recover from Covid-19 stress | Children | The Guardian
Moss, G. et al. (2020) Learning after lockdown Learning after lockdown | Institute of Education – UCL – University College London