EEF Blog: Starting early - what are we doing to examine disadvantage before year 1?

Anneka Dawson, Senior Evaluation Manager at the EEF, explores some of the challenges of evaluating early years programmes and interventions...

After many years of neglect, it feels like early years education is starting to get the attention it deserves. Just last week, Education Secretary Justine Greening announced £50m of funding to boost access to high-quality early language and literacy education and ensure more disadvantaged children arrive at school having mastered the basics.

The increased focus on this age group is welcome. We know that the gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates emerges before school starts - the latest data shows there’s a 19 percentage point gap in school-readiness between disadvantaged children and their peers. We also know that high-quality early years support can make all the difference.

The challenge is finding out which sort of programmes and interventions are likely to have the biggest impact on disadvantaged children at this crucial stage of their education. 

To increase the evidence base, the EEF expanded its remit to include the early years in 2015. Since then we’ve commissioned seven trials to test different early years strategies, including the Nuffield Early Language Intervention, an EEF Promising Project that’s currently being evaluated through a large-scale effectiveness trial in almost 200 settings.

Running trials in early years settings brings with it different challenges to running them in schools. For example, there are no national tests to use as a baseline so testing needs to be one-to-one and take into consideration the enhanced needs of children of this age group.

To help other researchers in this field, we’ve worked with a team led by Julie Dockrell at the UCL Institute of Education to produce an Early Years Measures Database. The database, designed to help evaluators measure early years development, covers language, literacy, numeracy and social-emotional development measures.

In addition, there is an accompanying report which reviews measurement in these domains, as well as information on measuring the home and early learning environments, along with practical guidance on measurement in the early years. We hope these resources will be useful to all researchers working with young children, as well as practitioners looking for ways to measure progress.

But this isn’t all that the EEF is doing in the early years. We recently partnered with Public Health England to fund a review of toddlers’ language development. We’re also developing an EEF Guidance Report on early years literacy teaching that will be published in Spring 2018.

You can also find out more about our education research in the early years through the Early Years Toolkit, a companion to our Teaching and Learning Toolkit. We currently have a funding round open with the Department for Education to test different projects that support professional development and leadership in the early years, which will complement a call for proposals from Nuffield Foundation we're supporting.

The EEF is committed to finding out more about 'what works' in the early years and supporting practitioners to make best use of the evidence available. We believe high-quality, evidence-based early intervention is crucial for making the difference for disadvantaged children.