Dancing in a classroom during a Zoom workshop, there’s nothing about this group of toddlers that immediately reveals what they’ve been through in the last six months.
Ask them about their memories of lockdown, and many of the children – who attend a nursery school in Barking, east London – want to talk about the time they spent playing.
But last month, a simple tweet laid bare a reality that many had warned was coming.
June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) group of nurseries shared a public appeal for support:
“We were hearing things like ‘mummy says I must eat a lot at nursery today’,” O’Sullivan told HuffPost UK.
“We asked ‘have you had breakfast’ and would often hear ‘no’, and when we suggested having breakfast we would hear ‘yes please, I’m very hungry.’
“We had already had that before lockdown, but now we were beginning to see a pattern of it. And then nurseries started having children back who were still wearing their welly boots or their winter boots, so it was clear that some families were really tight in terms of finance.”
LEYF is a social enterprise, running 39 nurseries across the capital and focusing on subsidising nursery places for children who would not otherwise be able to attend.
Fifteen nursery hubs were kept open during lockdown to support the city’s most vulnerable children – tightly defined by the government as including only children with social workers or EHCP plans in place.
But much of the work early years providers so as LEYF do actually revolves around trying to prevent children falling into the category of ‘vulnerable’ in the first place, via early intervention. Therefore, while nursery staff usually work with at-risk children, many of them fall outside the ‘vulnerable’ status and weren’t eligible to go attend their usual day centre sessions.
O’Sullivan said: “We were quite worried about their isolation, and we were also mindful of the fact that some parents who are really struggling with poverty and everything else often aren’t very confident, so they took the government’s messages on board at a very literal level.
“If you say ‘stay at home’, we knew they would literally stay at home – some families never left the house for almost the entire 12 weeks.”
Tina Georgiou, manager of the LEYF Eastbury Nursery and Pre-School in Barking explained how months of isolation had impacted young children, particularly those who had spent lockdown in particularly confined spaces.
She said: “I did a show-around recently with a little girl who was two, and her mum and dad said that prior to the lockdown she had been really sociable but they’d been in their flat for three months.
“During that three months the only person who had come in and left was dad, they didn’t leave at all.
“When they came to the nursery the two-year-old was wearing a mask, she came in so anxious that she couldn’t even look at anybody, she literally covered her eyes the entire time because she was so unused to being in any environment that wasn’t just with her two parents.”
Deputy manager Tanya Sawyer added: “I think it was like that for many children. They went from being in here five mornings, five afternoons a week – whatever they attend – to literally being stuck in their house or flat, not able to go anywhere or do anything. It was really difficult for a lot of them.”
As lockdown and the debate around schools reopening wore on, it was the parents who had strictly followed the lockdown advice who were most anxious about sending their young children back to nursery. By mid-July, only around 30% of LEYF’s most vulnerable children had returned.
“We knew the inequality was there, but now you couldn’t really avoid it. We knew it was there in the shadows because we work with it every day.” June O'Sullivan
Early years workers were able to stay in touch with some parents through the three foodbanks operated by LEYF throughout lockdown – but it was clear that something had to be done specifically to reach out further to children from the most deprived backgrounds.
As a minority of at-risk children began to return to nursery, it quickly became clear that the home situations of many had worsened through lockdown. Children were hungrier, were turning up in winter boots despite the mid-summer heat, and many had lost months of progress they had achieved prior to the pandemic.
In response, LEYF managed to secure funding to run two free summer schools catered towards promoting the health – physical, mental and emotional – of their children.
Georgiou explained that while some children had come back having developed their skills, a gap had emerged where others had regressed in their learning.
“I’m not going to lie to you and say they’ve now gone down to a one-year-old and they were at a three-year-old’s level, but there is definitely that gap,” she said.
“The boundaries and behaviours of children have changed – they’ll be more anxious and easily upset whereas they were maybe a lot more robust before.”
The children at Eastbury come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds – some more affluent than others. The relentless nature of the lockdown, particularly in its earlier stages, and the abrupt severance from their daily routines saw children struggle to cope.
Father-of-two Tony Savage works as a cook at Eastbury Nursery, where his two-year-old son Aidan also spends two days a week. He was furloughed for part of lockdown, but returned as the summer school scheme began.
“I can’t even remember how long I was at home, eight or 10 weeks – it was very difficult,” he said. “I’ve got a nine-year-old as well and they were both getting really frustrated.
“It was the start of lockdown when you couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t even really go to the parks so I had them both trapped indoors the whole time. It got to the point where at about two o’clock in the afternoon my two-year-old would just throw his shoes and shout ‘walk’ at me.”
But while some families from deprived areas suffered more through some elements of lockdown, Georgiou explained, the extent to which children were able to continue developing throughout lockdown couldn’t solely be determined by how affluent they are.
“When we’re talking about vulnerable children we’re not just talking about children on child protection registers, we’re talking about ‘vulnerable’ right across the board and missing those three months – that gap in their education and social experiences.
“Some of our parents are in a position where they’re less affluent or technology-based, so they’ll turn on the TV or give them a tablet. While they’re at nursery the children really get used to not having that.
“We sent home lots of things to enable them to play as they would in nursery – even recipes for play dough for the kids to use.”
Nursery staff didn’t just fill the educational gap left by Covid-19. LEYF runs several foodbanks, which help parents facing a huge – and growing – strain on their finances, and workers even stepped in to help parents buy staples like pasta and toilet roll that became difficult to find in the early days of the pandemic.
O’Sullivan said: “We saw a lot of resilience, a lot of joy and a lot of joyful children – but that’s just one side of it. On the other side are these children who have been locked up for 12, 14 weeks who haven’t got access to good nutrition or additional learning activities and are therefore at a disadvantage at every level.
“It’s not because of what they are, it’s because they’ve been born into a family in poverty. All it has done for me is just highlighted the inequality.
“The thing with working with small children is they’re like a litmus test for society. You can see all the problems in society manifested in small children and it touches on everything – health, the economy, emotional wellbeing, family dynamics, the workplace. It’s really sad to see the division between the rich and the poor becoming so evident.
“We knew the inequality was there, but now you couldn’t really avoid it. We knew it was there in the shadows because we work with it every day.”
But summer schools won’t fix the huge crisis facing the early years sector as a whole. Research published by The Sutton Trust in July showed that some 36% of nurseries in the country’s most deprived areas could close as a result of Covid-19, with parents finding themselves unable to manage notoriously expensive childcare costs amid the steepest recession on record.
Both leaders in the childcare sector and parents alike have long called for an overhaul of the UK’s approach to early years care and education, but Covid-19 has called the need into even sharper relief.
O’Sullivan said: “There needs to be a national strategy around childcare, and get people to understand the benefits to society if we all invest in early years provision. Whether you have children or not we all depend on the next generation to some extent.
“The funding structure needs to be looked at because currently the universal offer goes all the way up to people who earn £150,000. I would cap that and redistribute it to those people who earn much less.
“Therefore they can actually be guaranteed places. There needs to be a really serious think around how we fund childcare, and what society as a whole understands of childcare and early years education’s purpose so they can get behind it much more.”