ONE in five two year olds in Southampton were behind on developing key life skills last year, figures suggest.

Children’s charities say the worrying number of toddlers across England 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 across the country 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, 81% of children in Southampton 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 lower than the average of 83.7% across the South East, which was the fifth-highest proportion of England’s nine regions.

Across the country, 83.3% of children met expectations in all five areas of development in 2019-20. The charity Action for Children said it was “deeply worrying” to see so many toddlers falling behind.

“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.”

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.”

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.