Academics call on the government to improve breadth and depth of early years research

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The government must ensure it bases early years policy decisions on qualitative as well as quantitative evidence, and avoid prioritising research that only supports particular policy agendas, a group of academics has warned.

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The government is collecting opinions from the sector on its future research priorities

The comments made by the chair of TACTYC, the Association for the Professional Development of Early Years Educators, followed the publication of a Department for Education consultation into early education and childcare research priorities and questions.

The short report details the DfE’s policy aims and suggests three key research themes for future investigation: raising quality, increasing choice and improving affordability.

These include researching the most cost effective and sustainable ways to achieve a professional and confident workforce, models for delivering continuous professional development (CPD), and how to simplify the government’s early education funding system.

TACTYC chair Jane Payler, who is also a senior lecturer in early years education at the University of Winchester, said the government needed to ensure its research had 'breadth and depth'.

'We are keen on the government’s aim to liaise with research communities and hope that it will be done in a balanced manner,' said Ms Payler.

'We feel that the assumed prioritising of quantitative research would be unwelcome if it were at the expense of depth.'

Ms Payler said different research methodologies should be used to answer different types of questions.

'While quantitative research can effectively show large-scale trends, it needs to be supplemented with qualitative research to gain deeper insights into learning processes, staff development and children’s experiences,' she said.

'These in turn could be used to further hone effective pedagogies for high quality care and education supporting children’s long term holistic development and learning.'

Ms Payler urged the government to be wary of implementing changes based on old research findings.

She particularly noted that the often-quoted Effective Provision of Pre-School Education [EPPE] study from 1997 to 2003 has lost relevance with the passing of time.

'Contexts change and so research findings from previous decades or from other contexts need to be used with caution and updated,' she said.

'The findings from EPPE, for example, reflect an early years sector prior to large scale investment in workforce development and with minimal levels of graduate leadership.

'The government should take careful account of the breadth of existing research, and look to research communities to identify gaps. The research findings should be used to plan strategically for improving quality, using funding for staff training, CPD and improving pay and conditions across the early years.'

TACTYC and the British Educational Research Association jointly published their own recommendations for policy advice and future research agendas in February. 

It called for studies to be carried out into the potential influence of early years pedagogy, curriculum, assessment and partnership-working on the professional development of school teachers.

It also suggested the government should research the impact of the new Early Years Educator and Early Years Teacher roles, and focus on the quality of play in early years settings.

The DfE consultation is one of a series of 15 papers focusing on government research that are open to commentary indefinitely.

Other papers include options for the pupil premium, special educational needs and school funding.