EEF blog: Keeping up-to-date with the evidence on early years

Our Early Years Toolkit – an accessible summary of educational research – has been updated today. In this blog, Research and Publications Manager, Jonathan Kay, looks at the changes, with some practical advice on ways the evidence in the Toolkit can best be used...

Today we have published our latest update to the Early Years Toolkit. This is an accessible summary of educational research which 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. Like the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, the Early Years Toolkit is a live resource and a crucial part of our efforts to help close the attainment gap.

The latest research by the Education Policy Institute shows that the average attainment gap between disadvantaged children and all others is more than four months by the time they start school at age 5. But we know that a gap of this size is not inevitable. Indeed, in one London borough, Newham, disadvantaged children outperform their peers in the Early Years.

The Early Years Pupil Premium, worth over £300 a year to early years settings for each eligible child, provides an opportunity to improve learning for disadvantaged children across all regions in England. If used effectively, this funding can help close the gap for these children, so that they are no longer behind their classmates when they begin school.

The Early Years Toolkit aims to support leaders and practitioners in schools and early years settings to spend this money in ways the evidence suggests will have the greatest impact.

For each update of the Toolkit, we review the most recently published research to make sure that it reflects the latest evidence. Some highlights in this latest update include:

  • The impact on attainment of early numeracy approaches – which aim to develop number skills and improve young children’s knowledge and understanding of early mathematical concepts – has increased from +5 months’ additional progress to +6 months’.
  • Two new high-quality studies investigating earlier starting age – increasing the time a child spends in early years education by beginning at a younger age – back up existing findings, so we have increased our evidence security rating from 2 to 3 ‘padlocks’. This means the evidence suggesting the average impact on attainment is +6 months has moved from ‘limited’ to ‘moderate’.
  • A positive new study on play-based learning approaches – broadly defined as an enjoyable activity that is pursued for pleasure or its own sake – has helped increase the average impact on attainment from +3 months’ additional progress to +5 months’.

Play-based learning

One of the most striking changes in this update is that increase in the impact on attainment for Play-based learning. Does this mean that early years practitioners should be investing more in play-based learning approaches?

When using the Early Years Toolkit (or the Teaching and Learning Toolkit) to inform your decision making, we recommend three key steps:

1) Look carefully at all three of the Toolkit’s headline figures

While the additional months’ progress figure has increased, from +3 to +5, the evidence security rating for play-based learning remains at just one ‘padlock’ – this means there is still “very limited” evidence on this approach and its impact. This means that, while a positive new study shows a higher impact for play-based approaches, the quality of the study is fairly low, which means that the overall evidence is still weak.

If you plan to implement a change which has an underdeveloped evidence base to support it, it is crucial to follow the next two steps:

2) Read what the Toolkit entry says in detail

The additional months’ progress figure is an average calculated from a number of studies. The supporting text reflects the content of the individual studies and provides practitioners with more information on how the approach can be used effectively. Here, for example, from the entry on play-based learning:

‘Tentative recommendations include ensuring that learning environments for play are literacy-rich (for example, by providing writing materials or written props for role play activities), and balancing more structured, adult-directed activities with opportunities for child-initiated play.’

While there might not be enough evidence conclusively to support an approach, learning from past examples of effective practice can maximise the chances of success.

3) Evaluate the approach in your context

When introducing any new approach, it is crucial to check that it is making a positive difference for your children in your context. This becomes even more important when, as with play-based learning, the current evidence base is very limited. The EEF has developed the DIY Evaluation Guide, an interactive online tool, which can help those working in early years settings to evaluate the impact of new programmes and approaches.

Building an evidence base for Early Years

It is, we realise, frustrating when there is only limited evidence for an approach that could make a difference to children’s learning. This is why the EEF is committed to generating new evidence, testing high-potential approaches, and publishing independent evaluations – including in play-based learning.

We are, for example, currently trialling EasyPeasy, a smartphone app for parents of pre-school aged children which sends regular game ideas they can play together, combined with information on child development.

We are also partnering with the Nuffield Foundation to address research gaps so that early years leaders and practitioners can be better served by well-evidenced programmes.

To help build the evidence base, we need early years settings, schools and other practitioners to bring us ideas we can help evaluate, as well as volunteers willing to take part in our trials. We currently have an open funding round in which we are keen to receive applications for early years projects. 

If you are interested in helping us build the evidence, please visit our 'Apply' page or have a look at our trials currently recruiting for volunteer settings.