The Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) is an intensive targeted support programme that aims to improve the language and ability of young children with relatively poor spoken language skills. It is comprised of group and individual sessions delivered over 20 weeks to children in Reception (aged 4 – 5 years old). The project is designed to be delivered to the 3 – 6 children with the lowest language skills in each classroom and is delivered by school staff, usually Teaching Assistants (TAs) or Reception teachers. The sessions focus on improving children’s vocabulary, listening, narrative skills, and in the latter half of the programme, phonological awareness and letter/sound knowledge.
The most recent independent impact evaluation of NELI (2020) found that participating Reception pupils made on average +3 months progress in oral language skills compared with a business-as-usual control group. Based on this evidence from 200 schools, and the need to support with education recovery in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department for Education provided £9 million to scale the delivery of NELI to over 6,500 schools across England in the 2020/21 academic year and 4,297 schools in the 2021/22 academic year. There are two independent evaluation reports published here covering the two years of the scale up.
he Year 1 Report, conducted by RAND Europe, was a mixed methods process evaluation of the implementation of NELI at scale using surveys, interviews and case studies. The objective of the evaluation was to assess and understand the scaling process in a COVID-19 affected environment and to provide recommendations for supporting future scale-up of educational interventions. The first year of the evaluation focuses on schools who signed up to deliver NELI in the 2020/21 academic year. Some pupils may have continued to receive NELI in the 2021/22 academic year when they were in Year 1 as part of the extended delivery plan which was implemented as a consequence of the national lockdown January – to March 2021.
The findings suggest that despite the speed and scale at which NELI was rolled out and the fact that it occurred in a COVID-19 affected environment, training of school staff largely progressed as intended and school delivery of the programme to pupils was close to what was described in the logic model. The main adaptation for NELI implemented at scale was delivering NELI training online rather than face-to-face. This worked well and most school staff felt well prepared to deliver NELI after completing the training.
Despite the national lockdown delaying delivery to pupils, most teachers and TAs involved in delivering NELI felt the programme had a positive impact on pupils’ confidence and language abilities, including schools that continued with delivery in the 2021/22 academic year when pupils were in Year 1. Around 70% of those who responded to the survey indicated that their school would deliver NELI to the new cohort of Reception pupils in 2021/22, which suggests most schools feel well equipped to continue delivery.
Based on the evaluation findings, the report reflects on wider learnings about delivering educational programmes at scale, including the importance of utilising existing school networks in recruitment, having clarity and consistency in terms of the expected scale of delivery and putting in place efficient communication and data management systems.
The Year 2 Report, also conducted by RAND Europe, was another mixed methods process evaluation of the implementation of NELI at scale across schools in England, using surveys, interviews and case studies. It focuses on schools who signed up to deliver NELI in the 2021/22 academic year.
The findings show that despite issues with fidelity of delivery in schools and the ongoing impact of COVID-19, NELI was widely perceived by school staff as beneficial for pupils’ language abilities and confidence using language, particularly for schools who had completed the full NELI programme and/or were delivering individual/group sessions with fidelity.
Building on learnings from the first year of the scale up, the delivery team introduced changes and adaptations, including changes to the recruitment strategy and improvements to data management systems. Which were widely regarded as positive, creating efficiencies, reducing error and streamlining the process.
Based on these results, the report makes recommendations for future scale-ups of educational interventions, including an earlier recruitment window to give schools time and flexibility, setting-up mechanisms with regular and continuous monitoring to understand how programmes are implemented in schools, and streamlining support for programmes where possible.
The EEF has also commissioned NFER to complete an impact assessment of NELI delivered at scale in the 2021/22 school year which we estimate to be published in Autumn 2023.