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Tackling disadvantage: Embedding change within Early Years settings, through high quality professional development and sharing of knowledge through a cascade framework

Written by: Lyn Challender
4 min read

Early Years interventions for less advantaged children are hugely important for promoting children’s success later in their education and into adulthood, and the role that Early Years practitioners play is critical.

The Early Years Professional Development Programme (EYPDP) is a two-year initiative, funded by the Department for Education (DfE) and delivered by the Education Development Trust (EDT), and was launched in June 2019. The programme provides high-quality, evidence-informed continuous professional development for Early Years practitioners, working in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country. During the programme, around 1,400 practitioners will gain Level 3 and Level 4 qualifications in language and literacy, as proof of the difference that they are making to increase children’s communication skills and improve outcomes in language, literacy and mathematics.

This forms a key part of the government’s plan to improve social mobility through education. The ‘Unlocking talent, fulfilling potential’ plan (DfE, 2017) set out the government’s commitment to improving outcomes for disadvantaged children and closing the ‘word gap’ in the Early Years between more advantaged children and their less advantaged peers.

Word and development gaps can emerge very early in a child’s life, and their effects can be felt throughout their school lives and beyond. An average of 40 per cent of the development gap between disadvantaged 16-year-olds and their peers has already emerged by the time they are five years old (Education Policy Institute, 2016).

These gaps are particularly pronounced in early language and literacy. By the age of three, more disadvantaged children are on average a year and a half behind their more affluent peers in their early language development (National Literacy Trust, 2014). Significantly, more than half of children starting nursery school in socially deprived areas of England have delayed language (Gascoigne, 2012).

The EYPDP seeks to address this problem by ensuring high-quality training for practitioners working with vulnerable and disadvantaged young children. This training not only provides practitioners with the skills to support children’s development through subject mastery, but also provides additional support to embed change in their settings and ensure sustained capacity for continuous improvement (Melhuish, 2016).

Programme structure: Cascade framework

The programme has been specifically designed to ensure that a large number of practitioners are able to learn and share excellent practice in Early Years language and literacy skills development. This is achieved through a cascade framework (Turner et al., 2017), whereby an initial cohort of practitioners receives training from a team of expert trainers before learning how to deliver the training, enabling them to pass on what they have learned.

In the early stages of the programme, around 400 practitioners were recruited to act as Champions. Initially, Champions completed their first module ‘Making change stick’, which was developed using key messages from ongoing dialogue between experts at the EDT, who have worked together over the past five years to design, deliver and reflect on school-led delivery models across England (Jones and Davis, 2018). Additionally, online training was developed in partnership with the Chartered College of Teaching to provide further support for Champions. Champions then received high-quality, accredited training in Early Years language, literacy and mathematics, learning both how to embed that training in their own work, and how to make a difference in their local areas.

A key component of the training has also included enhancing the skills of practitioners to engage with parents and carers in supporting the home learning environment. Evidence suggests that the quality of a child’s home learning environment is a key predictor of a child’s future success (Taggart et al., 2015), and that there are specific activities and ways of communicating that can help to support a child’s early language development (Hillman and Williams, 2015).

Champions receive support from a team of expert trainers to help them build their own Communities of Practice. These Communities of Practice create a space for the Champions to share ideas, solve problems and innovate. Champions are encouraged to meet every six weeks and are provided with guidance on discussion topics to shape and evolve their dialogue.

The programme has not been without its challenges, in particular due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the delivery team to pause the training on two separate occasions. Regardless of this, the Champions have demonstrated exceptional commitment to their role in ensuring that their practitioner cohorts have been supported to effectively gain their accreditation.

When the initial phase of the programme draws to a close in March 2022, around 1,400 practitioners will be newly qualified in Level 3 language and literacy for two-to-four-year-olds, accredited by OCN London. A total of 1,400 Early Years settings will have achieved Communication Friendly Setting status, meaning that they are equipped to help to improve communication for every child, whatever their needs – extending their vocabulary, encouraging spoken language and working with families. An estimated 30,000 children will have been reached by the programme, among whom speech and language difficulties are more likely to be identified early, and impactful interventions can be made prior to the start of formal schooling.

The impact of the EYPDP has been recognised by the DfE as a significant step towards closing the ‘word gap’ and thereby improving the life chances of many of our most vulnerable children. The programme has thus been extended to reach a further 50 local authorities during the academic year 2021–2022 in response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This extension, titled ‘EYPDP Building on Success’, will deliver a modified version of the original content, with the addition of expert personal, social and emotional development (PSED) content developed by the Anna Freud Centre. This aims to provide participating practitioners with the skills to understand how to embed social and emotional learning strategies into their everyday practices and to confidently guide children’s learning in PSED, particularly those who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic.

The EYPDP has been well received by the Early Years workforce and the sector as a whole, with participating practitioners reporting that they have welcomed the opportunity to access high-quality training that has been specifically developed for those working with children aged two to four. Despite the challenges of delivering such a large-scale programme which was originally designed as a face-to-face training model, during the ever-changing dynamics brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, local authorities, setting leaders and practitioners have embraced the learning opportunity and have cited the difference that it has made to their everyday practice.

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