There is good evidence of the importance of early years education to a range of outcomes, and particularly for children from low-income families.
The EPPSE study (a longitudinal study assessing children’s development) found that children attending a high-quality pre-school showed an effect on attainment at the end of primary school when compared to those attending lower quality pre-school. High-quality provision is likely to be characterised by:
- positive, purposeful interactions between staff and children,
- activities that support children’s language development,
- the development of early number concepts, and
Once early years provision is in place, efforts to improve the quality of provision – for example by training staff – appear to be more promising than simply increasing the quantity of provision by providing extra hours in the day, or by changing the physical environment of early years settings.
However, despite good evidence linking the quality of early years settings with better outcomes, there are relatively few high-quality intervention studies in the UK showing the best ways that schools and early years settings can promote better practices in a workforce with wide-ranging qualifications.
The EEF has funded 7 projects with a focus on early years so far. One of these is now complete and provides good evidence of a promising approach: the Nuffield Early Language Intervention sought to improve academic attainment by supporting pupils to develop their spoken language. The approach involved training teaching assistants in nursery and reception to support small groups of children with relatively poor spoken language skills.
The independent evaluation of this project found positive impacts on children’s language, equivalent to about +4 months of additional progress for children receiving a 30-week intervention across nursery and reception, and some evidence that the effect persisted at six-month follow-up. This was the second trial of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention showing positive effects, and the project is currently being trialled again on a larger scale.
Other approaches that EEF is currently testing in early years include ways of training and supporting staff to improve language (URLEY) and maths (Maths Champions), and ways of engaging parents in children’s learning (Peep, EasyPeasy, and Family Skills).