Open to applications: narrowing the gap in early years

Matthew van Poortvliet, Grants Manager at the EEF, discusses the new Early Years Pupil Premium.

You have £300 – what can you get for a 3-year old? An elaborate chest of toys? A set of books and games? Perhaps lower on the child’s wishlist: how about support for the parents or extra training for nursery staff to help with speech and language development?

The introduction of the Early Years Pupil Premium – an extra £300 for disadvantaged 3 and 4 year olds from April 2015 – is extremely welcome. The money is not (yet) near the level of the school premium (£1,350 per child at primary), but it will provide new opportunities and, crucially, bring new attention to the question of how early years providers can best support disadvantaged children. As the Department for Education’s consultation showed last week, there is overwhelming support for the policy, even if the scale of funding is less than the sector would like.

There is good evidence that quality early years support makes a difference for disadvantaged children – this argument has largely been won. However, understanding what quality looks like and how to create it is much more difficult. Speaking to academics and practitioners there seems to be reasonable consensus about the key things that matter: early speech and language development, improving the home learning environment, well qualified staff, the quality of interactions between practitioners and children, and ‘shared sustained thinking’… But when it comes to pinning down examples of programmes or training that lead to changes in these areas, approaches with solid evidence, delivered consistently across diverse settings, are harder to identify.

The EEF is delighted to be open to early years applications, and to work with the sector to build the evidence for what works. We look forward to receiving applications on a wide range of approaches. As with all our funding rounds, we expect it to be a competitive process and we will prioritise bids that have the strongest evidence that they are likely to be effective. For applicants who are not successful, there will be future funding rounds (usually two each year), and for providers there will be opportunities to get involved by signing up to take part in trials. For projects with a focus on parental engagement that are not yet ready to apply to the EEF, the Sutton Trust last week announced its new Parental Engagement Fund, which will support interventions looking to strengthen their evidence.

There will of course be challenges to building evidence particular to the early years: how to measure impact in a sensitive and meaningful way; how to run trials among diverse settings; and how to develop approaches that are genuinely scalable. But there seems to be a real appetite to address these challenges, and strengthen the understanding of what works.

Our hope is that the updated Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which will be launched in spring 2015, and the trials we fund, will help early years practitioners to make decisions about how they spend the premium, and how they can use resources and deploy staff most effectively. Whatever settings do with their £300 per eligible child, whether that’s toys or training, using the money wisely by basing decisions on the best evidence available and demonstrating the impact this can create, is the strongest way of arguing for increased funding in future.