TODDLERS in Shropshire 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.

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 65 per cent of children in Shropshire 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.

Across the West Midlands, 80.8 per cent of children reached the expected levels, which was the third-lowest proportion of England’s nine regions.

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

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

“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.”

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

The proportion of children hitting development milestones varied widely across the country – just a third of children were at the expected levels across the board in the London borough of Brent, while nearly all (94.6%) of those assessed in Bracknell Forest in the South East were doing well in all skills.

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

“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,” he said.

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