The impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services
This written evidence is submitted by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF). EIF is an independent charity and What Works Centre that promotes and supports the use of effective early intervention to improve the lives of children and young people at risk of poor outcomes.
Our evidence is focused on the impact of the pandemic on early intervention and early help services: the range of services that support vulnerable children and families below the threshold for statutory local authority intervention, including targeted support provided by universal services.
The evidence draws on qualitative research carried out by EIF and Action for Children in April and May 2020, exploring the impact of COVID-19 on early help services, which will be published in June. The research is based on 28 semi-structured qualitative interviews with heads of early help services, lead practitioners, and head teachers. It also draws on our report on the evidence for virtual and digital delivery of interventions for children and families, which we published in May and references other relevant evidence.
The capacity of children’s services to support vulnerable children and young people
Our comments focus on the capacity to deliver early intervention. By early intervention we mean the range of non-statutory services that support vulnerable children and families below the threshold for children’s social care intervention. This includes targeted support provided through universal services such as schools, children’s centres and family hubs, early years childcare and education settings, midwifery or health visiting.
Maintaining essential face to face contact
The nature of support for families has changed dramatically due to the pandemic and social distancing requirements. Essential home visits are still being carried out, but typically by social workers rather than family support workers as part of an early help service. Some local services are carrying out ‘doorstep visits’ where necessary. Others are finding innovative ways to ensure some level of face to face contact or sight of vulnerable children whilst observing social distancing, such as taking home education resources out to families, or delivering food parcels.
Our research suggests that most areas have had to close children’s centres and family hubs. However, some have kept a small number open and are using them flexibly as hubs for multi-agency support to families. This support includes face-to-face support from social workers or family support workers for particularly vulnerable families, along with support for children with special educational needs, or midwifery and health visiting services. These kinds of innovations need to be evaluated so that they can inform policy thinking on the future of children’s centres and Family Hubs.
The move to virtual or digital support
Beyond this limited face to face contact, we know early help is being delivered virtually or digitally, but that the nature and extent of this virtual support varies considerably. Some services are focusing on regular telephone or videoconferencing check-ins with vulnerable families, offering practical support in response to their immediate needs during the pandemic. Others are adapting the delivery of face-to-face programmes such as group parenting programmes to use videoconferencing. Social media channels or apps are also being used to offer general advice and support to parents of the kind that would have previously been offered through children’s centres or family hubs. Inevitably, there has been limited evaluation to date on the impact of these changes.
Programme developers and providers are rapidly mobilising to allow remote delivery of interventions. We surveyed 88 developers and providers – most of whom are working in the UK – and found that the great majority (91%) were continuing to deliver interventions. However over three-quarters of respondents were doing so with major adaptations to standard delivery. Adaptations included moving resources and content online to facilitate remote access, and using phones, messaging services such as Whatsapp, and video conferencing software such as Skype, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams to deliver sessions. Some developers had begun to redesign the content and format of their interventions to make them easier to deliver remotely. Although continuing with services, several providers had paused the delivery of some components of interventions, such as group sessions or certain therapies and activities that have yet to be adapted for remote delivery.
The move to virtual and digital support and the decrease in home visits has meant that capacity to deliver early help has increased in some areas. However, whilst the move to virtual provision seems to have increased the accessibility of early help and wider family support services for some, it has almost certainly reduced it for others including families with very complex needs, families with limited access to the internet or laptops, parents with English as a second language, or those who would usually receive more tailored support including disabled children or those with special educational needs.
Identifying risk and vulnerability in a virtual context
The rapid move to a largely digital or virtual offer has led to concern that professionals are less able to identify escalating or changing risk and respond to this. The subtler signs of abuse, neglect or domestic violence for example, are simply much harder to spot without home visits or other face to face contact. Local services have tried to mitigate this risk though, for example, new guidance for staff about the signs that may be spotted through virtual contact and may necessitate escalation to children’s social care.
The dramatic reduction in the contact that universal services have with children and families as also led to concerns that children who become vulnerable during the lockdown or social distancing measures will not be identified and will not receive the support they need.
Compounding this, we know that take up of school places and places in early years settings for vulnerable children has been extremely low. The head teachers and other schools-facing professionals we have spoken to have been extremely concerned about the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable children who have not been in school or early years settings during the period of closure. They have been working hard with social workers to keep in contact with these families to check in with the children and continue to encourage parents to take up of places, but their ability to do anything more has been limited.
The clearest message from our conversations with professionals is that the biggest challenges are yet to come. This period will have been hugely stressful for many families and the implications for them and for support services could be widespread and long lasting.
We and the professionals we spoke to anticipate a significant spike in both early help and social care referrals once lockdown measures have eased, schools and early years provision has reopened, and the full extent of what children have experienced starts to come to light. As we discuss in the final section of this evidence, we do not believe that local authorities will be able to manage this increased demand and ensure that children and families receive effective and appropriate support without a significant uplift in funding.
The effect of the closure of schools and early years settings on disadvantaged groups
Even before the pandemic, disadvantaged children were four and a half months behind their classmates by the time they finished reception, and over 18 months behind by age 16 according to the Education Policy Institute. In recent years the gap had stopped closing and in reception had even widened in the previous year.
We know the importance of education for school age children. In addition, we know that attending early education and care benefits children’s development, particularly if it is high quality; and that it has been shown to have an impact on school readiness, long-term school attainment and lifelong outcomes. Evidence suggests that the benefits are particularly important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The home environment, especially the learning environment, is also critical in supporting children’s academic and socio-emotional development.
However, the Sutton Trust, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Education Endowment Foundation and Ipsos MORI have all recently documented that the pandemic is highly likely to widen the attainment gap significantly as a result of school and early years setting closures, pressures on families and huge variation in the quantity and quality of education children have been receiving at home. These were all major issues highlighted by those we interviewed as part of our research. Interviewees also suggested, as found in recent survey data, that disadvantaged parents are less willing to send their children back to education in the coming months.
Although the attainment gap is where policy attention is focused, schools and early years settings will also need to respond to children’s social and emotional needs. A focus on relationships and emotional wellbeing will be critical to children’s ability to re-engage and learn, and important for their longer-term outcomes, including their mental health.
The lockdown has resulted in many children spending longer than usual at home, away from peers and early years settings which require adherence to social conventions involving prosocial interaction and self-regulation (e.g. sitting still, taking turns, sharing). Children will likely require some time to readjust to the demands of being back in settings, which require impulse control and getting along with others. Teachers will need to be sensitive to this and also to the additional needs of those children who have been exposed to high levels of family stress in recent months and will need clear systems for identifying and obtaining additional support for children and families who have having difficulty coping.
The effect of provider closure on the early years sector
We know that local authorities have been working intensively with private or voluntary providers of early years childcare and education to help them stay afloat. They have told us that providers have struggled to navigate the government guidance on their funding position and that many have now been forced to close. There is anxiety about the probability of permanent closures of smaller private and voluntary settings, and the availability of places in the longer term.
There is also likely to be an impact on the early years workforce from a prolonged period of closure, not only on the supply of qualified staff who may leave the sector, but also on longer term professional development given limited resources for both childcare and education providers and training providers when settings reopen. This may have a knock- on impact on the quality of early years provision. More needs to be done to assess the impact of the pandemic on the early years sector both in terms of the financial stability of settings and the supply of places but also the demand from parents. However, it is key that the decisions do not focus solely on provision as a means of childcare to enable parental employment but also emphasise the importance of early education for a child’s early development and the expertise early years practitioners provide.
The recovery phase
We want to highlight three issues that government and local authorities will need to consider to ensure the resilience of the sector in the immediate and medium term recovery phase:
Funding for children’s services
Children and young people’s services have been under significant financial pressure for many years now, at a time when demand for these services has risen. Local authorities have increasingly had to prioritise their statutory child protection services and scale back non-statutory early help. Longstanding sector concerns about resourcing in children’s services pose questions about the capability of local public services to adapt and respond in the medium term to the expected growth in demand, which is likely to significantly amplify the pre-existing challenges challenges.
Without additional investment, local authorities and wider services will struggle to meet the needs of vulnerable children and families.
Ensuring that local authorities are funded at a level that enables them both to meet the anticipated increase in demand for statutory child protection services and early help services will be a critical part of the pandemic recovery phase.
Learning the lessons from this period of rapid adaptation in service delivery models
The local service leaders and professionals we have spoken to have been quick to identify potential gains from this period of rapid innovation and adaptation and keen to retain some of these changes to service delivery models in the longer term. Many professionals are positive about aspects of virtual and digital delivery in particular, and are interested in the extra capacity this may create within services. Some programme developers have expressed an interest in retaining or further incorporating virtual and digital components devised in response to COVID-19 into the standard delivery of their interventions in the future.
We carried out a rapid review of the evidence for virtual and digital interventions to support children and families in April. This highlighted the limitations in the current evidence base and highlighted the challenges and risk associated virtual and digital delivery methods including, for example, high levels of attrition. Our report concluded that it is essential that programme developers, providers and commissioners work collaboratively to design evaluations which will improve the evidence base on effective approaches to virtual and digital delivery of interventions for children and young people beyond the immediate crisis.
Supporting children’s wellbeing and mental health
Children and young people’s wellbeing and mental health must be at the heart of planning for the recovery phase and must remain a priority in the longer term. Social and emotional learning in schools is an important part of this. There is substantial evidence that teaching social and emotional skills in childhood can have both short-term impacts on children’s outcomes and long-term impact on adult life, including improved mental health and life satisfaction.
Our 2019 guidance for primary schools sets out evidence-based strategies that teachers can use to support social and emotional development at a classroom and whole-school level. We know that teachers themselves place a high value on social and emotional learning, but that curriculum time and resources including access to relevant training or continuous professional development have been squeezed in recent years by the policy focus on academic attainment. The government needs to explicitly recognise the vital importance of social and emotional learning during the recovery phase and for the longer-term, and ensure that schools are supported with evidence-based guidance, support and training which reflects the specific context of the pandemic.
Targeting support where it is most needed
The emphasis needs to be on effective targeting of support for children particularly vulnerable to the absence of early education and a supportive home learning environment as a result of the pandemic. In the short term this could include the targeting of children eligible for free school meals who will be transitioning into reception with an intensive evidence-based support programme over the summer and into their reception year. In the medium term it could include supporting local areas to increase the take up of the two-year entitlement for eligible children and supporting settings to target support at three and four-year-olds who are eligible for early years pupil premium funding.
 See https://www.eif.org.uk/report/covid-19-and-early-intervention-evidence-challenges-and-risks-relating-to-virtual-and-digital-delivery
 Hutchinson, Jo et al. (2019) Education in England, Annual Report 2019. London: Education Policy Institute. https://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/EPI-Annual-Report-2019.pdf
 Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., and Taggart, B. (2004). Effective Pre-school Provision. London: Institute of Education; Taggart, B, Sylva, K., Melhuish, E. Sammons, P., Siraj, I. (2015) Effective pre-school, primary and secondary education project (EPPSE 3-16+) How pre-school influences children and young people's attainment and developmental outcomes over time. Department for Education. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/455670/RB455_Effective_pre-school_primary_and_secondary_education_project.pdf.pdf
 Cattan, S., Crawford, C., & Dearden, L. (2014). The economic effects of pre-school education and quality (No. R99). IFS Reports, Institute for Fiscal Studies. https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/7430
 Melhuish, E. & Gardiner, J. (2020). Study of Early Education and Development (SEED): Impact Study on Early Education Use and Child Outcomes up to age five years.. London: DfE. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/early-education-and-outcomes-to-age-5; and Sammons, P., et al. (2008). Effective Pre-school and Primary Education 3-11 Project (EPPE 3-11): Influences on children’s attainment and progress in Key Stage 2: Cognitive outcomes in Year 6. London: Department for Children, Schools and Families.
 See https://www.suttontrust.com/our-research/covid-19-and-social-mobility-impact-brief/; https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/BN288-Learning-during-the-lockdown-1.pdf; https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/childcare-and-home-learning-families-0-4-year-olds-during-covid-19; https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/covid-19-resources/best-evidence-on-impact-of-school-closures-on-the-attainment-gap/
 IFS (2020) Learning during the lockdown: real-time data on children’s experiences during home learning IFS Briefing Note BN288. Available at: https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/BN288-Learning-during-the-lockdown-1.pdf
 see: https://www.eif.org.uk/report/social-and-emotional-learning-skills-for-life-and-work