What makes the biggest difference to a child’s success in early learning? This is a key question, especially now that we are in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis and children’s early education is being disrupted. It’s the question that one of the world’s biggest longitudinal studies into early childhood education and care (ECEC) sought to answer. The effective pre-school, primary and secondary education (EPPSE) project(Taggart et al., 2015) tracked a large cohort of children from their early years all the way through to the end of their secondary schooling. The research found that accessing high-quality early childhood education and care makes a positive difference to children’s learning. That’s true both for their early years, and also throughout their schooling. The finding is especially strong for disadvantaged children. Professor Iram Siraj and her colleagues sum this up neatly in their 2016 ‘Fostering effective early learning’ (FEEL) report (Siraj et al., 2016, p. 4):
‘Although the importance of high quality ECEC (Early Childhood Education and Care) for fostering children’s development and learning extends across the gradient of social disadvantage, it is particularly significant for children from highly disadvantaged backgrounds.’
Their research puts a strong emphasis on quality, and further studies have made similar findings. For example, free places for disadvantaged two-year olds were first piloted in England in 2009. The evaluation found no improvement to the children’s outcomes (Smith et al., 2009). The children who stayed at home developed just as well. But the researchers went back over their data and looked only at those children who attended high-quality provision. Then, they did find some important benefits for children’s language development. In simple terms, if you want to support children’s early learning, either offer high-quality provision, or don’t offer anything at all.
The EPPSE project found that early childhood education and care is best when it is led by well-qualified, trained and supported graduates. Overall, better-qualified teams are associated with better quality of provision. In turn, better quality is associated with better outcomes for children.
Quality can be measured by reliable tools which focus on the processes of early education and care (Siraj et al., 2016). Higher process-quality scores are associated with better outcomes for children. More recent research has given us a lot more information about effective approaches to professional development, and how well-led and supported teams can work together to improve quality (Siraj et al., 2016; Rogers et al., 2017).
All these points may seem rather obvious. But if we stop and reflect for a moment on early education and care in England, we can see that the system has a very long way to go to achieve the structural conditions needed to promote quality. The number of qualified staff working in the early years is actually falling steeply. There is a lack of high-quality, affordable and accessible professional development for staff at all levels.
If we are serious about wanting to work together to support and develop learners in the early years, the first thing we need to do is make system-level change. We need to keep advocating for the importance of early education and care, and for the funding and status it needs. That may seem a rather lofty aim, remote from our day-to-day practice and lives. But like all big aims, we can break it down and start to work on it at our own level.
For example, groups of schools and settings could work together on larger-scale professional development programmes. A local network of five to 10 schools and settings could work together with the Research Schools Network to achieve this. They could draw on an evidence-based approach like the Education Endowment Foundation’s (2018) guidance, ‘Preparing for literacy’. That way, participants could be assured that the content was high-quality and most likely to make a positive difference to children’s learning and progress.
As Rogers et al. (2017) suggest, the early years sector should come together across the traditional boundary between schools and private nurseries. We should ‘seek ways to bring together professionals from different settings to allow greater sharing of expertise and practice, to find ways to redeploy and hence grow the learning capital acquired by educators through Professional Development and Learning (PDL) programmes, across organisations and clusters of settings’ (Rogers et al., 2017, p. 51).
The evidence suggests that PDL programmes should be much longer-lasting than is normal in most educational settings (Mathers, 2020). Instead of one-off training days or evenings, we should think about a programme which runs over 20 weeks with a mix of whole-team training and online twilight sessions. That way, the programme is most likely to have impact.
Tasks to complete between sessions, and robust systems to support practitioners as they develop their practice are also essential. Rogers et al. (2017, p. 11) conclude that professional development and learning programmes that ‘provide opportunities for reflection, peer group discussion and regular feedback on learning and performance are effective at changing practice and improving outcomes for children.’
Finally, an effective professional development programme needs well-designed evaluation running right through it. That way, teams can pick up quickly if something isn’t working and make any necessary adaptations. Much of this is about walking a line between fidelity to an evidence-informed approach, and adapting to the real-world challenges and differences we all encounter daily as teachers and educators.
Leaders and policy-makers must work together to make serious improvements in this area. As Rogers et. al. (2017, p. 51) argue, ‘the most important factor in ensuring that the positive benefits of PDL Programmes have long lasting and sustainable impact is the full commitment and on-going support of school and setting leaders, and ultimately that of policy-makers and government.’
But, it is important to note that there is another factor which is even more important than quality in ensuring that children get the support they need to develop their learning.
The EPPSE project (Taggart et al., 2015) found that parental support for a child’s learning at home has the biggest single impact on a child’s success in their early years, and throughout their schooling. That’s true for parents at all income levels. In other words, the research found that parents living in socio-economic disadvantage can still provide a positive ‘home learning environment’. It isn’t who you are, it’s what you do that makes the difference.
Parents at all income levels can provide a positive home learning environment. But it is much more difficult for parents in disadvantaged circumstances. Research suggests that poverty, poor housing and high levels of crime and violence in a neighbourhood are all associated with poorer health and learning for young children (Blair and Raver, 2014). So, I am not arguing that there is some kind of ‘silver bullet’ which will save children living in poverty. We have to work together to address the inequalities in our society. Whilst every parent has the potential to create a positive home learning environment for their child, it’s much harder for some parents than others. The research suggests that disadvantaged children, and boys in particular, get less support for their learning at home.
So, why is it so important for young children to have a home learning environment where there’s lots of play, talk and sharing of books?
Playful home learning can help young children develop the crucial self-regulation skills which they need as they move into statutory schooling. The EEF guidance report on preparing for literacy defines self-regulation as ‘children’s ability to manage their own behaviour and aspects of their learning’. Children as young as three can develop their self-regulation through play (Whitebread and Coltman, 2010).
However, it has been difficult to find effective ways to support parents in developing this type of home learning environment, or indeed supporting home learning in other ways. In their comprehensive review of the evidence, the Education Endowment Foundation (2019, p. 6) concluded that ‘evidence on effective strategies that schools can use to engage parents in their children’s learning is mixed’.
In my experience, it is very easy to take a lot of actions and feel that you’re making a difference. It is rarer for schools and early years settings to evaluate the impact of their work, which is often time-consuming and expensive. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre (where I am headteacher) has tried numerous different ways to support parents, to encourage play and learning at home. We’re based in a very diverse part of London, with high levels of child poverty. Our initial evaluation of parent feedback suggests some clear areas for further reflection and research.
- Parents said they liked short videos which showed them how to do something with their child to support their learning. For example, we showed parents step-by-step how to plant a bean seed and modelled the sorts of questions and conversation that might enrich this further.
- Our data from YouTube told us that any video over 5-minutes long was very unlikely to be watched to the end.
- Newsletters and other suggestions of activities and learning were rarely read or acted on.
- Many parents reported positively on their use of the EasyPeasy app to get ideas. The app sends parents cheap and easy-to-follow ideas for play at home. Nearly every parent has a mobile phone, whilst access to other forms of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is more limited. The Sutton Trust has carried out an evaluation of EasyPeasy(Jelley et al., 2016) and found a significant effect ‘on parents’ self-efficacy regarding discipline and boundaries and on children’s cognitive self-regulation (parent reported)’.
- Some parents told us that they had done a lot of home learning with their child, focused on letters and numbers, and that they hadn’t wanted to follow the suggestions for play, conversation and sharing books which we had suggested.
- Parents responded particularly positively to the delivery of their ‘home play and learn pack’. These packs were simple and low-cost (less than ¬£5 per child): just a painting set, a sketchbook, crayons and pencils, and a bean seed to plant in a pot.
It goes without saying that we are in an unprecedented period of challenge. We can expect the challenges of COVID-19 to stay around for a considerable period of time. So, it is even more essential for educators to improve and develop collaborations which will be effective in supporting and developing learners in the early years. It’s also essential that we draw on the best evidence at hand as we do this: as the researcher Robbie Coleman from the Education Endowment Foundation (via personal communication) warns, innovation must be followed by evaluation.