Early years intervention

High impact for very high costs, based on extensive evidence.

Cost Per Pupil Cost estimate: Over £1,200 per pupil. cost per pupil
Evidence Rating Evidence estimate: Three or more rigorous meta-analyses. evidence rating Average impact: + 6 additional months. Impact +6 months

What is it?

Early years or early childhood interventions are approaches which aim to ensure that young children have educationally based pre-school or nursery experiences which prepare for school and academic success, usually through additional nursery or pre-school provision. Many of the researched programmes and approaches focus on disadvantaged children. Some also offer parental support.

How effective is it?

Overall, the evidence suggests that early years and pre-school intervention is beneficial with above average levels of impact (a typical impact of six additional months' progress). There is some international evidence that these programmes need to be for a whole day (rather than a half day which on average has less impact, though it should be noted the UK’s Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) study did not find a difference) and of longer duration (up to a year or more) rather than for shorter periods of time. 

In most studies, the impact on attainment tends to wear off over time, though impact on attitudes to school tends to be more durable. There is no established amount of time where the fade takes place, rather there is a pattern of decline over time. Early years and pre-school interventions are therefore not sufficient to close the gap in attainment for disadvantaged children.

How secure is the evidence?

There are a number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses which have looked at the impact of early childhood intervention. Most of these are from the USA however, where children tend to start school at a later age. Evaluations of Sure Start in the UK do not show consistent positive effects and indicate that some caution is needed when generalising from exceptionally successful examples. However, overall the evidence supporting early childhood intervention is robust.

For full references, please click here.

What are the costs?

Understandably the costs are high, as adult/child ratios in pre-school provision tend to be higher than in school classes and family interventions have similar high costs. The Sure Start average cost per child was about £1,000 in 2006, so the estimates are in the region of £1,000-£2,000 per child. This can be compared with the average yearly childcare costs for a child under two at about £5,000. Overall, the costs are estimated as very high.

What should I consider?

  • High quality provision is essential with well-qualified and well-trained staff.

  • Such provision is likely to be characterised by the development of positive relationships between staff and children and by engagement of the children in activities which support pre-reading, the development of early number concepts and non-verbal reasoning.

  • Extended attendance (1 year+) and starting early (i.e. 3 years) is more likely to have an impact than shorter durations starting later, which on average produce much lower gains.

  • Disadvantaged children benefit from good quality programmes, especially where these include a mixture of children from different social backgrounds, and a strong educational component.