Is the pandemic to blame for Bedford toddlers falling behind in their development?

Children’s charities say urgent investment in early years sector is needed to get them “school-ready”

Toddlers in Bedford were way behind others across England on developing key life skills last year, figures suggest.

Children’s charities say the worrying number of toddlers across the country who are falling behind will have grown during the pandemic, and said urgent investment in the early years sector is needed to get them “school-ready”.

Nursery nurses and health visitors examine thousands of children aged between two and two-and-a-half years old nationally to check their mental and physical development, as part of the Healthy Child Programme.

In 2019-20, just 50 per cent of children in Bedford met expected standards across the five areas of communication, problem solving, social interaction

The assessment gives parents an insight into how well their child is progressing and is used to help plan and improve local services.

In 2019-20, just 50 per cent of children in Bedford met expected standards across the five areas of communication, problem solving, social interaction, using fine motor skills such as holding a pencil, and gross motor skills including kicking a ball.

That was among the lowest proportions of 130 council areas across England – the national average was 83.3 per cent.

The charity Action for Children said it was “deeply worrying” to see so many toddlers falling behind across the country.

Imran Hussain, the charity's director of policy and campaigns, said: “Sadly what is not reflected in these latest statistics is that the situation has become much worse over the last 12 months.

“We know how critical the first few years are to children as they develop at a whirlwind pace, unmatched at any other time in their lives, yet over the last year our frontline staff have seen children off all ages regress in speech, behaviour, education and social skills.

And he added: "The Government must urgently invest in children’s centres and family hubs to give children the support they need to be school-ready."

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said the early years sector has been “severely underfunded” for years.

He said: “This is especially detrimental in disadvantaged areas, where parents have limited funds to pay for additional hours or optional extras, and many children have additional needs."

And he added that the Government should urgently review the early years pupil premium – extra childcare funding for parents receiving certain benefits and tax credits – so children who have missed out due to the pandemic can get extra support.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We want every child to have the best start in life.

"We have kept nurseries and childminders open during lockdown to ensure the continuation of the care and education of our youngest children, and we continue to fund settings as usual.”

The department has provided £9million for the Nuffield Early Language Intervention programme to support children in Reception to catch up on lost learning, more than £4million for early years charities, and committed £14million to champion family hubs, the spokeswoman added.