IES evaluations in action: Mercers’ Early Years Special Initiatives

Blog posts

13 Jun 2022

Jonathan Buzzeo, Senior Research Fellow
Ceri Williams, Research Fellow 
Anneka Dawson, Head of IES Trials Unit and Pre-16 Education 

What is the connection between the Mercers’ Company, the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington and the Institute for Employment Studies?

The Mercers’ Company is a livery company focused on being a philanthropic force for good. The Company is the sole trustee of several charities, which engage in significant philanthropy across three people-focused programmes: Young People & Education, Older People & Housing and Church & Communities.

So, what is the link between the Mercers’ Company and Sir Richard Whittington? One of the charities is the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington, bequeathed in 1424 by Richard Whittington, Mercer, international merchant and four-time Lord Mayor of London. 

A strand of work under their Young People & Education programme is the Early Years Special Initiative, which is funded by the charity. The team at IES are very pleased to be evaluating two of the three-year projects (Peeple’s Exploring Together STEM project and CLPE/ Imagination Library’s  Closing the Vocabulary Gap) funded under the initiative. We will explain more about the two projects below.

The Peeple Exploring Together STEM project

The Charity of Sir Richard Whittington began funding Peeple in March 2021. Peeple have a strong reputation for supporting parents and children to learn together and they are well known for designing the evidence-based Peep Learning Together Programme.

The people at Peeple have got an exciting new project, still rare in the early years arena, to ‘stemify’ learning in the early years. By working with practitioners and parents, they are preparing to sprinkle a little bit of STEM into as many play and learning activities as possible. By integrating STEM into activities designed to be done in early years settings and also at home, they plan to address negative perceptions of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Through this, they hope to encourage a more positive and confident generation of children, who don’t just see people who work in STEM careers in the stereotypical image of a man in a white lab coat, but as a career that is open to all.

Partnering up with practitioners at Sheringham Nursery in The Early Years Hub for Newham (East London) and Dr Alex Hendry from the University of Oxford, the team are currently designing this innovative training programme aimed to develop the STEM base of practitioners and families.

The ‘stemification’ method used in the early years project is the first of its kind in the UK and the team are aiming high. The design stage is on-going, with a small pilot happening currently and a plan to carry out a full pilot of the intervention this autumn. After making tweaks to the blueprint, the programme is set to start properly in spring 2023, which is when the team here at IES will carry out a small-scale randomised control trial (RCT) with families to evaluate the impact of the project on child outcomes.

The Closing the Vocabulary Gap project (CVG)

The other project being funded by Mercers’ that IES are evaluating is being delivered by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) in collaboration with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. This project received funding from the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington in March 2020.

The project provides bespoke training and resources to EYFS teachers across 30 schools in central London, helping them develop a high-quality literacy curriculum and foster Reception pupils’ love of reading and writing. Teachers are learning how to use high-quality texts and creative pedagogical approaches to support pupils’ engagement in reading as well as their language and literacy development. The project is also looking to create positive reading experiences at home as well as school by working with the Imagination Library to gift these children a series of high-quality, age-appropriate books for their own collection. As Dolly Parton says: ‘A kid can never have too many books.’ Over three years, the project aims to improve pupil literacy attainment in participating schools and reduce the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. 

The project started in autumn 2020 and is now almost at the end of its second year of delivery. IES, in partnership with the Sutton Trust, is evaluating the difference made by the project to both teachers and pupils through a mixed method approach. While the project is still not complete, findings from in-depth interviews completed with teachers during its first year suggested that the project is already having positive effects on their teaching practice.

For example, a key approach encouraged by the project to support pupil engagement and enjoyment of reading, is the use of the ‘slow reveal’ technique. This is where teachers slow the pace of progression through a story book with their class. They will take the time to examine single illustrations and ask pupils what is happening in a particular scene, how characters are feeling and what their relationship is with one another. Teachers may also be more selective in how much information they present at one time, for example, by initially reading through a story without presenting any of the illustrations.

Some of the teachers now using this technique noted that they were initially concerned that their class would become bored. However, they found that this approach produced a far deeper level of immersion and engagement in a story’s development. Teachers also felt that where they initially focused on oral storytelling, this prompted pupils to focus more on the content and narrative development, encouraging imagination and creative thinking. This element of the slow reveal also supported the development of phonics and helping pupils get to grips with high frequency words.

Other positive changes in teaching practice were cited, and overall teachers felt that the CVG project was encouraging them to use a greater variety of approaches to support pupils’ literacy and language development, while also enriching their existing practice.

The next steps in our evaluation of this project are to complete interviews with the new cohort of teachers that are receiving CLPE’s training this year. IES will also be looking at pupil level data being collected by teachers from the beginning of Reception through to the end of Year 1 to observe whether the project is associated with any improvements in pupils’ language and literacy skills compared to national and local averages. The team here look forward to bringing you further updates as the projects progress.

Thanks to our colleagues at Mercers’ for their contribution to the introduction of this blog. 

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