An early years coaching programme is rolling out nationally after a huge leap in outcomes was recorded among a pilot group of children.
Experts were deployed to settings in deprived areas for two years in order to boost skills and confidence among children, practitioners and parents.
During this time the proportion of children reaching an age-appropriate level in key areas, including communication and emotional development, rose from 23 per cent to 73 per cent.
The free Achieving Early pilot tracked the progress of 388 children who were vulnerable to poor outcomes at 62 settings.
Achievement for All, the education charity behind the programme, assigned a coach to each nursery, pre-school or children’s centre to work on core elements. These were ‘working together’, ‘leadership and management’, ‘progress and learning’, and ‘health, happiness and wellbeing’.
Achievement for All won in the Inclusive Practice category at last year’s Nursery World Awards.
More widely, the charity has worked with more than 3,000 schools and settings to improve the reading, writing and maths skills of the lowest-achieving 20 per cent of children and young people.
The pilot initially focused on Gloucester, Sheffield, Bournemouth, Coventry and Cornwall, and the programme has now rolled out to 90 new settings, some of them in new areas such as Lincolnshire, Nottingham and Northants.
Parents’ and carers’ confidence in supporting their children’s learning was raised by a strategic conversation called ‘taking time for talk’, enabling them to discuss successes, concerns and aspirations with practitioners.
At the start of the pilot, 47 per cent of parents expressed a lack of confidence or knowledge; later on, 94 per cent reported the discussions had been ‘helpful or very helpful’. As a result, many were inspired to do more at home with their children.
Similarly, at the start of the pilot, more than 40 per cent of practitioners at Level 1 to 2, 25 per cent at Level 3, and half at Level 6 to 7, expressed a significant lack of confidence in working with parents.
By the end, 92 per cent said they were confident, with the remainder reporting feeling ‘fairly confident’.
Maureen Hunt, the programme lead, said, ‘Despite Government interventions in the early years sector, evidence shows that too many children from areas of high deprivation are still starting school below age-related expectations compared with their peers.
‘We want to transform this. High-quality early years education and parental involvement are crucial in countering the effects of social disadvantage.
‘The key aim of the pilot was to ensure that a greater proportion of children meet or exceed age-related expectations and we are absolutely delighted that it has produced such fantastic results.’
Ms Hunt said Achievement for All is welcoming enquiries from settings and added, ‘We have 25 coaches across the country who can currently deliver this and are looking at recruiting more.
‘We have made a good start and we want to become known as the national provider for early years support, because we know it works. The faces of the managers and how much it impacts on practitioners, parents and children are wonderful.’
The programme also appears to have helped boost Ofsted ratings at some of the settings involved in the pilot.
Of the 33 settings inspected during the two years, the number of Outstandings rose from two to eight. Two of these settings were previously graded as Satisfactory or Requires Improvement.
The number of Good settings increased from 17 to 29, while the number previously rated Inadequate plummeted from five to zero.
The pilot was delivered between September 2013 and August 2015; 40 of the settings were funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, with the remaining 22 funded by local authorities.
CASE STUDY: PLAYDAYS PRE-SCHOOL, COVENTRY
Cieran Rattray, with his father Christifer, at Playdays Pre-school
Playdays Pre-school in Coventry has upped its Ofsted rating from consistently Satisfactory to Good following coach Jean Ferraro’s intervention.
Ms Ferraro’s work focused on encouraging the setting to involve parents in an ‘equal partnership’ with practitioners.
Manager Jill Gowing said, ‘The pilot was for two years but we’ve now brought in the programme for another year.
‘I’ve known Jean – well, this is the third year now – it’s like we’re friends. It’s helped lift my confidence and knowledge but we’re always looking to improve.’
Ms Ferraro was assigned to Playdays after Coventry City Council made the area’s settings aware of the opportunity.
The early years advisor, who has 25 years’ teaching experience, supported the pre-school with a bespoke programme including 20 half-day visits over the two years.
Ms Ferraro was also available by email and telephone, and the setting benefited from extra information and training via Achievement for All’s online resource, called The Bubble.
An initial meeting identified what the manager wanted to work on, followed by a strategy centred around making better use of learning journals and improving awareness among parents of how specific learning milestones fitted in with the EYFS.
The advisor said, ‘Jill was very open in saying she wanted to develop her leadership and management at the setting.
‘Most settings do learning journals but they can find them difficult to manage, and they may think they need to include a lot more than they need to do to make them effective.
‘We worked really hard with the practitioners on this because they tick a lot of boxes in terms of raising quality and they can help improve parental involvement in their children’s learning.’
She explained that journals are best reserved for ‘significant learning’ events for individual children, rather than for depicting group activities – which can be acknowledged in other ways.
In one example, staff met for ‘taking time for talk’ with parents of one child to understand their needs. The parents said they were concerned he could be doing better with counting.
Ms Gowing said, ‘He was near the end of his first year and we were expecting him to be further on. His parents had noticed he was struggling.
‘We gave them ideas to do at home, such as counting steps and cars. They hadn’t thought of these things, but it’s about giving them confidence.
‘Especially with maths, they think it’s more complicated than it is.
‘We saw improvement such as with shopping role-play, counting things into his basket and giving money to the shopkeeper.’
Ms Ferraro said often once the parents’ anxiety is reduced, this has a natural knock-on effect.
‘It relieves the child’s anxiety,’ she said. ‘It’s going to make them feel a lot better about themselves and they feel that they’re achieving. The parents are also feeling good about being part of their child’s learning.
‘The coach supports the setting to ensure these conversations aren’t one-way. The key is listening to parents.’
Other techniques include work on transition and ‘helping children feel secure’, she added.