An Early Years revolution? Time to focus on high-quality early education

Blog posts

17 Apr 2023

Anneka Dawson, Head of IES Trials Unit and Pre-16 Education
Alexandra Nancarrow, Research Fellow

Early Years childcare has been highlighted in the news recently, following Jeremy Hunt’s latest Spring Budget updates that included the extension of free childcare hours to children aged from 9 months to 2 years old for those parents meeting the in-work criteria. The extension of free childcare hours will begin in 2024 over a series of staggered updates.

Hunt has also relaxed the staff to child ratios from 1:4 to 1:5 for children aged two years, which does not currently have the backing of the Early Years sector or parents of young children (as reported in March 2023 by Early Education). The many problems with these changes have been summarised in other blogs, such as this one by Laura Barbour from the Sutton Trust. However, now the Early Years sector has been finally getting a little of the attention it deserves we want to ensure there is a focus on high quality early education not just childcare.

Research evidence indicates that high quality early years settings are most effective at supporting children and particularly children who are at a disadvantage, helping to reduce social inequalities. Early Years practitioners are likely to be less qualified than their school counterparts and to have less access and opportunity to continued professional development. These factors amongst others are thought to be contributing to a high level of practitioners leaving the sector so more training and support for Early Years practitioners is in desperate need. At IES we have been running programmes in the Early Years for five years now and we are continuing to extend the work we do in this area with three new projects focused on supporting Early Years practitioners.

Firstly, IES will be running an efficacy trial evaluation of the Early Talk Boost programme by Speech and Language UK, which is an intervention with 3- to 4-year-olds designed to improve the early language skills of children experiencing delays in their communication and language abilities. The programme trains Early Years practitioners to deliver an intervention lasting nine weeks. Support is also provided to parents and carers to enhance children’s language development at home. IES will be completing an implementation and process evaluation (IPE) as well as analysing children’s language and communication outcomes in settings in two areas in England, the East of England and the Southwest working alongside the Stronger Practice Hubs in Highfield and Plum Bridge.

Secondly, IES will be exploring the Tales Toolkit programme in a pilot evaluation based in the Thames Valley with Reading Early Years Schools Federation Stronger Practice Hub. The Tales Toolkit programme uses child-led storytelling to support early language and social development in 3- to 5-year-olds. Early Years practitioners receive training videos, physical resources for the Tales Toolkit sessions with children and other support resources including research articles, a social media group and access to webinars. The evaluation will include practitioner surveys, interviews with setting managers and practitioners, observations of programme delivery, interviews with the delivery team, and an analysis of intervention fidelity.

Finally, later this year we hope to launch a new effectiveness trial in the early years. This will involve an investigation into children’s language and socio-emotional outcomes as well as a thorough IPE involving parent and teacher surveys and longitudinal parent interviews.

IES will be celebrating the first birthday of our Trials Unit this month, and it is great to see the continuation and extension of projects across IES from diverse fields such as education, mindfulness, health and transition to employment. Please do get in touch by emailing our Head of IES Trials Unit Anneka Dawson if you have a project you would be interested in discussing.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.