EEF Blog: Tackling the attainment gap in the early years - how evidence can help

Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, explains the recent decision to extend our remit to cover the early years. Kevan will be speaking at the 4Children early years conference on the 23rd October 2014. Please go to for more information.

This September, a new group of three year-olds started at nursery school. Excited, apprehensive… and that’s just their parents. But behind the beaming smiles (and occasional fleeting tears) there is a blunt reality. An attainment gap between those children from low-income families and their peers has already opened up. Research has shown that differences in children’s cognitive development linked to parental background can be seen as early as 22 months. Studies indicate that by their fifth birthday many of the highest early achievers from deprived backgrounds have been overtaken by lower achieving children from advantaged backgrounds.

That’s the bad news. The good news is this: there is nothing inevitable about this trajectory. Children from low-income families are just as capable of achieving well at nursery as their friends from better-off backgrounds. And the better news is there will soon be additional money for early years providers to help them close the gap. From April 2015, the Government will be extending its Pupil Premium to allocate an additional £300 for every 3-4 year-old eligible for free school meals. That money could make a difference – if it is spent wisely. That’s where I hope the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) can help.

We think that the best way of narrowing the attainment gap is to carefully test different approaches; build an evidence base of effective teaching strategies; then encourage schools, government, and others to apply an evidence-based approach to narrowing the attainment gap. So far we have awarded £46.7m to evaluate 87 different projects working in over 4,500 schools, but our work has focused on the 5-16 age group. From October 2014 we will be open to applications from projects seeking to make an impact on 3-5 year olds. Please click herefor information on how to apply.

Alongside our efforts to create new evidence for early years practitioners, we will seek to make currently available research more accessible through our Teaching and Learning Toolkit. The Teaching and Learning Toolkit is a summary of educational research which provides guidance for teachers and schools on how to use their resources to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. The Toolkit currently covers 34 pedagogical approaches, each summarised in terms of their average impact on attainment, the strength of the supporting evidence and their cost.

The EEF is looking forward to strengthening research into the most effective interventions in the early years and improving their accessibility to practitioners. Please get in touch with our grants team ( if you are interested in applying for funding.