Growing number of toddlers fail to reach ‘expected level’ of development

The proportion of toddlers in England at the expected level of development has fallen in the past year, figures suggest.

More than a fifth of two-year-olds were not at or above the expected level across all five areas of development in 2022/23, according to data from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities.

The proportion of pre-schoolers at or above the expected level for communication skills, motor skills, problem-solving skills and personal/social skills has dropped in all key areas compared with the previous year.

The data was collected from health visitor reviews completed at two to two and a half years using the Ages and Stages Questionnaire 3 (ASQ-3).

The percentage of two-year-olds at or above the expected level across all five areas of development was 79.2% in 2022/23, compared with 81.1% for 2021/22.

The figures, which cover April 2022 to March 2023, come amid concerns that the pandemic has had a negative impact on children’s development.

Overall, 85.3% of toddlers in England were at or above the expected level in communication skills in 2022/23, compared with 86.5% in 2021/22.

More than nine in ten pre-schoolers were at or above the expected level in gross motor skills (92.8%) and in fine motor skills (92.6%) in 2022/23, compared with 93.4% and 93.2% in 2021/22.

The percentage of children at or above the expected level in problem solving skills was 91.8% (compared with 92.7% in 2021/22), and 90.3% were at or above the expected level in personal-social skills (compared with 91.1% in 2021/22).

The data, submitted by local authorities in England on a voluntary basis, also highlights regional differences in toddler development.

In London, nearly a third (30.6%) of toddlers were not at or above the expected level across all five areas of development in 2022/23, compared with just 15.3% in the east of England and 15.4% in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Alison Morton (pictured), chief executive of the Institute of Health Visiting (IHV), said: “Health visitors see first-hand the impacts that the pandemic has had on babies, toddlers and families who are often hidden behind front doors and invisible to other services.

“It is stark to see the growing numbers of children at two years who have fallen behind with their development over the last three years.

“This is due to several factors including the increase in the number of families affected by poverty, mental health problems, isolation and abuse.

“When parental stress increases, we see knock-on consequences for child health, development and safety concerns that have all increased in recent years.”

She added that access to services that can support families has reduced due to “short-sighted” cuts and workforce shortages.

Ms Morton said: “Despite health visitors’ best efforts, many children who are struggling are identified too late or are unable to access the vital early support that they need.”

James Bowen, assistant general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the latest figures were a “concern”.

He said: “It is hard to pinpoint one single reason for the fall, but many early years leaders tell us that the growing levels of child poverty they are witnessing is having a negative impact on the children they work with.

“Early years leaders also tell us that they are particularly concerned about the number of children that are experiencing difficulties with communication skills, as well as their personal and social skills.

“What we need to see is greater investment in early intervention from government so that young children get the support they need from specialists so that they can reach those early milestones.”

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