Headsprout Early Reading® in Special Schools (HERiSS) programme is a computer-based, targeted reading intervention for pupils in special schools in England. The intervention is based on Headsprout Early Reading® (HER®), a programme owned by Learning A‑Z, which was originally developed in the US for children aged four to seven years in mainstream schools. Between 10 and 30 minutes three times a week, pupils work through the online episodes which target phonemic awareness, phonics, and reading fluency, with the programme adapting instruction in response to pupils’ answers.
Bangor University had previously piloted the programme in UK special schools and developed additional training, a support manual with additional activities to support the delivery of HER® to pupils with special education needs and disabilities (SEND), and ongoing supervision for implementation in this context.
This was the first evaluation that the EEF has funded with a focus on special schools. Two previous pilot studies of Headsprout by Bangor University in a small number of special schools showed evidence of promise and led to the commissioning of this efficacy trial, which is among the largest randomised controlled trials conducted in special schools in the UK to date. This trial was designed to test whether Headsprout Early Reading leads to improved reading outcomes for children in special schools.
The programme struggled to be delivered as intended due to various pressures in special schools such as staff turnover and workload, pupil absence, and time constraints. These pressures were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the intervention being delayed from September 2020 to September 2021. These difficulties also impacted evaluation activities such as the final collection of data, with 27% of pupils unable to be assessed for the primary outcome.
The difficulties in trial delivery resulted in a low security rating for the evaluation of this trial. The evaluation found that pupils who were allocated to receive the Headsprout Early Reading in Special Schools programme made no additional progress in reading compared with pupils in special schools who did not receive the programme, though there is some uncertainty around the result with possible impacts including both positive and negative results. Despite these findings, all teachers and most pupils interviewed stated that the intervention was positively experienced by pupils.
The EEF has no plans for a further trial of this programme.