From the way she gently coaxes her little girl into smart new trainers, it’s clear that Chloe is a caring mother. And as someone who wants the best for her children, she has concerns about the development of both Jordon, six, and Mia, four.
Waving an exercise book at me, the pages covered in squiggles, Chloe, 24, a single mother who lives on the outskirts of Norwich, explains: ‘Jordon’s teacher wants him to write a poem. But he’s so far behind, he doesn’t even know what a full stop is!’
Then she glances down at her daughter, crouched at her feet, arms wrapped around her mother’s calves. ‘My youngest is so clingy, I’m having to send her to reception with her dummy to keep her calm.’
Once, dummies were the preserve of infants who would be weaned off them during the toddler years. But now they, along with nappies, bottles and other paraphernalia of babyhood, are increasingly a feature of the nation’s reception classes — and even beyond. It’s a vivid illustration of the disastrous impact the pandemic has had on the cohort of babies and young children born just before and during Covid — consequences only truly emerging as they enter education.
Certainly, teachers are in no doubt: children are arriving for school less prepared than they’ve ever been.
Once, most four-year-olds were toilet-trained and could, with help, get dressed, feed themselves and perhaps even make a fist of writing their name or basic numbers.
Now, says the Education Endowment Foundation, significant numbers of four and five-year-olds have speech and language problems, trouble with social interaction and confidence and delays in walking.
Before lockdown, about half the year group were not ready for school. ‘Now it’s more like 80 to 90 per cent arrive in a pushchair, dummy in mouth and wearing nappies, unable to take off their coat or eat with a spoon,’ one head summarised.
Shockingly, one head teacher told a recent education commission of a mother who pushed her son to school in a shopping trolley. Locked up in a small flat during the pandemic, tablet no doubt firmly in hand, he had failed to develop the muscle tone to run about.
Some children have been so isolated that they adopt the funny voices of the cartoon characters they endlessly watch.
The teachers I spoke to are clear where the blame lies — with poor parenting during lockdown.
A primary school teacher from the North-West told me indignantly: ‘The children are not potty-trained. That’s OK when you’re dealing with one child but it’s a disaster when it’s all 30. It takes away from teaching time for the whole class.’
Another confided: ‘We find all manner of things in their pants — filthy nappies or even sanitary pads as makeshift nappies.
‘It shows us what the parents consider normal at home. They leave the child to play in wet or dirty pants. They send them to school like that.’
Teaching staff feel that more than ever, parents now feel it’s OK to offload responsibility for parenting to schools.