Pandemic has delayed social skills of young children, says Ofsted chief

Rising numbers unable to understand facial expressions and have communication and self-care delays

An increasing number of young children have been left unable to understand facial expressions after having fewer opportunities to develop their social and emotional skills during the pandemic, the education watchdog for England has said.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said the worst affected were the most vulnerable children, with those living in smaller homes without gardens typically spending more time on screens during successive lockdowns, which also resulted in delays in learning to walk and crawl.

She said it was clear from four briefings on education recovery published by Ofsted that the pandemic had created “lingering challenges”.

She said: “I’m particularly worried about younger children’s development, which, if left unaddressed, could potentially cause problems for primary schools down the line.”

In the briefing on early years, based on inspections of 70 providers in January and February 2022, some said children had “limited vocabulary” while some babies had “struggled to respond to basic facial expressions”, partly due to interacting with people wearing face masks.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Spielman said the pandemic and lockdowns had resulted in delays in learning speech and language; problems with social interaction and confidence, such as not knowing how to take turns and struggling to make friends; and delays in walking and crawling, with more obesity as a result.

Children were also not at the expected level in developing vital self-care skills, such as being potty trained, tying their shoelaces and taking their coats off, she added.

She said: “Children have had less time in early education, less time interacting with others outside the family. For some children they’ve not much interaction at all if they’ve spent all their time looking at screens. Children have been talking in the funny voices of cartoons they’ve been spending enormous amounts of time watching.”

To assist their child’s development, Spielman advised parents to speak to their children as much as possible and take them out for walks to the shops and to the park so they could see the world and take exercise. “Those basic parenting things are more important than delaying their entrance to school,” she said.

She said schools were well-prepared to deal with children at a range of developmental levels, noting that the most effort would be put into children who have had the worst experiences over the pandemic.

The inspectorate has seen “lots of really good work” across early years, schools and further education, including on catchup strategies to close gaps in knowledge and skills.

But Ofsted found that funded places for two-year-olds had not been used as much as before the pandemic, which Spielman said she hoped she “will see reversed” as normal life returns.

The reports showed that some staff members at nurseries have come up with innovative ways to help young children catch up, such as through a “chatter group” with a diary to record activities, or encouraging children to express their feelings through “emotion cards” with images of children displaying different facial expressions.

In schools, Ofsted found the pandemic was continuing to affect pupils’ knowledge and mental health, with leaders reporting lower resilience and confidence, and increased anxiety and disruptive behaviour. Headteachers also raised particular concerns about children in reception year, who they said had delayed speech and language development, as well as disadvantaged pupils and those with special needs.

Some schools reported that safeguarding disclosures had increased, especially around domestic abuse.

For older secondary pupils in years 11 and 13, teachers are struggling to help pupils catch up on content they had missed while simultaneously preparing them for exams. Some headteachers observed that certain GCSEs, such as triple science, had become less popular.

James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Schools work incredibly hard to give pupils the extra support they need but they cannot do it alone – the government must also invest in early years services for disadvantaged families, as well as vital services like speech and language therapy, so that those children who need specialist support receive it as early as possible.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our ambitious recovery plan continues to roll out across the country, with nearly £5bn invested in high-quality tutoring, world-class training for teachers and early years practitioners, additional funding for schools, and extending time in colleges by 40 hours a year.

“We have simplified the national tutoring programme to reach as many pupils as possible, with funding going directly to schools from next year. The Nuffield early language intervention programme is also being used by the majority of schools to improve language skills of reception-age children.”


Rachel Hall

The GuardianTramp

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