Young children seem to have suffered the most from the school closures imposed during the shutdowns.
In addition to affecting literacy and numeracy skills, lockdowns have also hindered language and communication development, physical coordination, and social and emotional skills, according to new research.
The results indicate that the early years of education are a key target for interventions aimed at reversing learning loss from Covid-19.
And they underpin fears at the start of the pandemic that the social and emotional impact of lockdowns could be as damaging as the effect on education.
Millions of children around the world have seen their education disrupted in the past two years, with exams, school transitions and regular schooling disrupted.
But children early in their education have been particularly affected, according to a study in the UK commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the biggest funder of school research in England.
Researchers examining the impact of the pandemic on children starting reception in 2020/21 – aged four and five – found that only 59% were achieving expected levels of development by the end of the school year , compared to 72% the previous year. – pre-pandemic – cohort of the year.
Areas examined included language and communication skills, physical development and personal, social and emotional development, and literacy and numeracy skills.
This equates to three additional children in every class of 30 students who are not where they should be.
“The early years are a crucial time for children’s development, both in terms of academic achievement and social and emotional well-being,” said Professor Becky Francis, CEO of EEF.
“It is therefore of particular concern that fewer children have achieved expected levels of development by the end of reception class.”
While all primary school children – ages 5 to 11 – lost during the pandemic, researchers found evidence that younger children were the most affected.
The principal of a nursery school, for children under five, said the impact of the pandemic on children’s development was clear when the closures were lifted.
“Many have struggled with vital aspects of early childhood development, such as the personal touch or fitting into larger groups of children,” said Ruth Coleman, head of Highfield Nursery School in Ipswich.
“We saw more children who also had separation anxiety from their parents. Some children were further behind with speech and language development than we expected.
Lockdowns have also exacerbated the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their classmates across all age groups, according to researchers from York University, the National Institute of Social and Economic Research and Education Policy. Institute, who conducted the study.
And although students have made progress since returning to face-to-face learning last summer, they were still behind expected achievement levels, the researchers found.
Disadvantaged pupils had slipped up to an additional month behind their peers in reading and maths by the end of second grade – aged six to seven – putting them seven months behind, compared to six months before the pandemic.
Researchers have called for a package of supports for schools to lessen the impact of school closures, with targeted interventions for children most in need of extra help.