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What does high-quality early years provision look like?

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) have published two reports examining the key features of quality in early years childcare provision, with the aim of understanding which have the greatest potential to maximise child outcomes. The reports look at structural quality (EPI) and process quality (EIF). The authors have summarised the findings of both reports in a blog.

The research highlights that considerable evidence gaps that remain in terms of what is most beneficial to children’s outcomes. The authors argue that if government is serious about using early years provision to improve outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged children, then it must ensure the future research agenda is designed to address the evidence gaps identified.

Structural quality

The EPI report brings together key sources related to structural quality in early years provision, focusing on the so-called ‘iron triangle’: workforce training and professional development, child-to-staff ratios and group size. Overall, EPI found that structural elements have an impact on children’s outcomes across several domains:

  • A formal degree with at least some specialised training in early childhood education or child development is useful in delivering the skills and knowledge that support optimal teacher behaviour. However, a clear strategy to deliver systematic, sustainable and transformative continuing professional development to staff working in different roles is needed for training to make a difference for quality;
  • More favourable ratios (fewer children per staff) lead to better children’s outcomes as they provide the opportunity for more individualised attention and are conducive to better teacher and child behaviour.
  • Early years settings are required to adhere to ratios that are in line with generally agreed upon guidelines, yet ratios in Reception year classes are much higher than what those recommended to maximise the impact on children’s outcomes.
  • Smaller class sizes for the entire school day are associated with improved children’s outcomes, greater educational effectiveness and other benefits at classroom level. While classroom sizes for children aged 0–4 are not regulated in England, they are usually kept in line with what is considered best practice. In Reception year, however, 30 pupils per class in England is the norm, despite international evidence showing that the maximum average size of 20 children per class as best practice for this age group.
  • Failure to sufficiently support each element of the ‘iron triangle’ – workforce training and professional development, child-to-staff ratios and group size – is likely to result in adverse outcomes for children.

Process quality

The EIF report, based on a rapid evidence assessment (REA), provides a synthesis of 108 studies from the past 10 years, reflecting the impact of 83 specific programmes or practices. Overall, the studies included reported favourable outcomes for children across the domains of language and literacy, mathematics, cognitive, socio-emotional and physical outcomes. The review identified a number of significant weakness in the current evidence base, which makes it hard to draw conclusions about what elements of process quality are most effective. These limitations include:

  • The majority of these studies came from the US, which limits the generalisability of their findings to the UK context.
  • Studies often lacked detailed descriptions of the programmes they were examining, making it hard to assess what the components of the intervention included.
  • Most interventions operated at multiple levels within the setting, combining elements of training or selection, curriculum material and design, and changes to whole-setting ethos. As individual elements were rarely tested in isolation, studies were only able to report on whether programmes were effective, not what elements led to the improvement in outcomes.
  • There was limited evidence reported on programmes having longer-term impacts, meaning we only know for a few programmes whether sustained impacts were found.
  • Few programmes tested the differential impacts on different groups of children – for example, by age or at-risk group, such as economically disadvantaged – which means that the report could make no recommendations on how practice should vary or be targeted most effectively.

Both reports make a number of recommendations for future research, which are summarised in the blog.