Sustaining practitioner learning in early years settings with speech and language therapist support

Blog posts

6 Feb 2023

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

According to a DfE report published in April 2022, Covid-19 has had a substantial impact on young children and the early years sector. Increasing numbers of children require additional support with speech and language and communication skills, which is compounded by severe staffing issues. Nearly three-quarters of private, voluntary and independent (PVI) nurseries and pre-schools have lost staff since the pandemic began, whilst their costs have increased. With the current cost of living crisis, this situation is likely to worsen.

Difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff has been a commonly reported challenge for early years settings over recent years (e.g., Guardian, Social Mobility Commission). A survey of nurseries and pre-schools by the Early Years Alliance in 2021 found that the majority (84 per cent) were finding it difficult to recruit suitable new staff, with three-fifths (61 per cent) saying they had experienced staffing shortages which had negatively impacted the quality of provision. In efforts to recruit and retain staff, a main concern for setting managers is being able to invest in professional development and training, especially for PVIs where such opportunities are rare and costly. Upskilling the workforce and retaining knowledge in the setting is essential for ensuring quality provision, helping practitioners feel valued and improving outcomes for children.

The UK government's investment in the early years sector continues to focus on speech and language development and central to this is professional development training and further qualification support (e.g., training for special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs)). This support is welcome to the early years sector, which continues to struggle with adequate funding (especially for PVIs) and is still experiencing impacts from the pandemic. However, research from EEF suggests that embedding practice is crucial to an effective professional development programme and this is the focus of the Coaching Early Conversation Interaction and Language (CECIL) projects.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) continues to work with the Sutton Trust and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to evaluate the CECIL projects, which provide speech and language support to early years practitioners and crucially look at embedding and sustaining this learning in the settings. For phase 1 of the CECIL project, the Nottinghamshire Healthcare’s Children’s Speech and Language Therapy Team (henceforth known as Nottinghamshire) built upon their existing programme to incorporate further coaching elements and focused on supporting early years practitioners in PVI settings with the aim of improving staff practice and child outcomes around language and communication for two-year-olds. The phase 1 implementation and process evaluation (IPE) was led by IES and a phase 1 report was published (Dawson, Huxley and Garner, 2022). Phase 2 of the project added further sustainability work which was provided to the settings to help embed the CECIL project, under the title Nottinghamshire CECIL sustainability programme, and this is evaluated in our latest report.

The additional support provided to the settings in the 21/22 school year was developed following feedback from several workshops the Nottinghamshire team carried out with managers and practitioners, and included:

  • Two additional review observation sessions after the end of the training in March 2022
  • A pack of ‘Let’s Keep Interacting’ resources, which they called a sustainability menu

The phase 2 implementation and process evaluation (IPE) explored how the intervention sustainability work was delivered, and identified moderating/contextual factors influencing potential impact. The IPE included interviews with practitioners and nursery managers to explore any reported changes in practitioner behaviour, the nursery environment, and child language and communication outcomes as described by practitioners. We also explored evidence of effectiveness and issues which need to be considered for a wider roll-out of the interventions. The main findings were as follows:

  1. Perceived impacts on practitioners: Through training and coaching sessions with the Speech and Language Therpaist (SaLT) practitioners gained skills, confidence, and motivation to support children’s language and communication development and make referrals for children who needed additional support. Practitioners benefited from increased professionalisation and opportunities to progress within their roles (e.g., as mentors or language leads). It was suggested that continued professional development may help practitioners feel more valued in their role and help with retention.
  2. Perceived impacts on children: The programme appeared to be a universal intervention that practitioners felt supported the language of all children at their settings but were particularly beneficial for targeted approaches with children who were struggling or had speech, language and communication needs. Practitioners also reported children displayed greater confidence talking to adults and improvements in attention.
  3. Sustained practice: Practitioners and managers felt able to continue to use all the strategies they had learned in the longer term but would also benefit from continued support from the SaLT team in some form. The sustainability programme helped settings develop plans for cascading and retaining knowledge in the settings.

Key considerations for the future of the programme and any similar programmes:

  • SaLTs should consider with managers how the programme could be used to help retain staff and knowledge, for example by creating new roles and support with cascading learning so that learning is not lost when practitioners leave the setting. High quality resources should be accessible to all members of the setting.
  • Offering additional coaching on a termly basis, if possible, helps to keep learning fresh and embedded where needed.
  • Additional coaching was useful as practitioners changed roles. SaLTs should consider how the strategies used with two-year-olds could be adapted for use with older children if practitioners move to a new room.
  • Managers and practitioners suggested contact with other settings taking part and wider integration of the CECIL programme into networks would be appreciated to support learning, ensure wider dissemination and avoid repetition of training and resources.

Overall, additional support from the SaLT team is seen to be effective for embedding and sustaining good practice around language and communication development in settings. Additional support can be particularly helpful for settings where practitioners have left or moved roles, to ensure knowledge can be retained, cascaded and adapted in the setting.

We are continuing our work with the CECIL project in 2023, working with a team at Everton Nursery School and Family Centre to evaluate their early years professional led model of support for language development - so will update on that later in the year.

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