Education Endowment Foundation:Early Years

Early Years

Improving the teaching and learning of early years 

Evidence on early years from the Teaching and Learning Toolkit alongside the findings from recent EEF projects.

Early years education aims to ensure that young children have high-quality learning experiences before they start school.

Gaps between more affluent children and their peers emerge before the age of 5, so efforts to support children’s learning in the early years are likely to be particularly important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Early education approaches typically include:

  • communication and language activities;
  • play-based learning;
  • interactive story-book reading, physical and creative activities, and
  • support for parents to encourage learning at home.

Our Early Years Toolkit – an accessible summary of educational research – aims to help early years practitioners use their resources to improve learning outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged children.

More than 1,500 individual studies are grouped into 12 important topics, each summarised in terms of the average impact on: (1) attainment, (2) the strength of the supporting evidence, and (3) the cost.

Further details about each topic in the Early Years Toolkit can be found by clicking on the individual strands.

You can access it here.

There is good evidence of the importance of early years education on a range of outcomes, and particularly for children from low-income families.

The EPPSE study (a longitudinal study assessing children’s development) found that children attending a high-quality pre-school showed an effect on attainment at the end of primary school when compared to those attending lower quality pre-school. High-quality provision is likely to be characterised by:

  • positive, purposeful interactions between staff and children;
  • activities that support children’s language development;
  • the development of early number concepts, and
  • self-regulation.

Once early years provision is in place, efforts to improve the quality of provision – for example by training staff – appear to be more promising than simply increasing the quantity of provision by providing extra hours in the day, or by changing the physical environment of early years settings.

However, despite good evidence linking the quality of early years settings with better outcomes, there are relatively few high-quality intervention studies in the UK showing the best ways that schools and early years settings can promote better practices in a workforce with wide-ranging qualifications.

The EEF has funded 19 projects with a focus on early years so far. One of these particularly provides good evidence of a promising approach: the Nuffield Early Language Intervention. The programme is designed to improve the language skills of reception pupils (ages 4 – 5) with relatively poor spoken language, through scripted small-group sessions delivered by a trained teaching assistant or early years practitioner.

The independent evaluation of this project in 193 schools found positive impacts on children’s language, equivalent to about +3 months of additional progress for children receiving the 20-week intervention in reception. This was the third trial of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention showing positive effects.

Other approaches that the EEF is currently testing in the early years include ways of training and supporting staff to improve mathematics (Maths Champions, TEEM UP, Reception Jigsaw), and ways of engaging parents in children’s learning (ParentChild+, PACT, The REAL Programme, Tips by Text, Triple P).

EEF literature review: Early language development (2017). Co-funded with Public Health England, this report assesses needs, provision, and interventions related to language development for pre-school children, particularly those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Early Years Measures database: an online database of measures. One of the challenges in this field is measuring changes in development with young children. To help address this, the EEF commissioned UCL Institute of Education to complete a systematic review of measures in this area. The linked resources include an online database of measures assessing the quality of measures and a guidance document for selecting, using and interpreting measures. Read our blog about it here.

The Early Intervention Foundation’s Guidebook provides evidence reviews on a large number of early years programmes.

EEF has published three guidance reports with a particular focus on early years: Preparing for Literacy, Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1, and Working with Parents to Support Children’s Learning.