Analysis: EPPE can show the way to value for money

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As new policy may arise from reviewing the EYFS, where's the evidence to guide the way forward? Mary Evans hears from a leading researcher.

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The review of the EYFS ordered by children's minister Sarah Teather will aim to reduce the paperwork that practitioners have to complete, shift the focus to getting children ready for school and improve the attainment of deprived children.

The review, chaired by Dame Clare Tickell, is to look at learning and development, with references to the latest evidence about children's development and what is needed to give them the best start at school.

Early years experts hope that when analysing the evidence, she will pay due regard to the huge body of research collected by the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education study (see box) showing the lasting benefits for children of attending quality pre-school provision.

While EPPE's findings were a key driver for many of Labour's early years policy initiatives (see box), it is not partisan.

'Let's not forget it was in the dying days of the last Conservative Government that the EPPE project was signed off. Nobody can accuse it of being a Labour initiative,' says Megan Pacey, chief executive of Early Education. 'As a result of this project, we now have the most enormous body of evidence that is UK-based.

'For a long time, when there has been debate on public policy in this country in terms of investing, all the evidence has come from research based elsewhere. The EPPE evidence is robust, it is impartial and it is independent.'

EPPE was designed not to evaluate Government policy but rather, to help shape it. The Conservative Government knew that pre-schools were cheap and nursery schools expensive. What they didn't know was what kinds of early years provision offered the best value for money for which kinds of children.

Professor Kathy Sylva of Oxford University, lead author of EPPE, explains, 'EPPE was designed by the Conservatives to  look at the value for money across a range of early years provision that may be used by different groups of children.'

As researchers, she says, 'we are not arguing for or against any one policy. What we are saying is that the evidence from EPPE is there, and it can aid the Government in devising policy.'

One area where EPPE could help devise policy is that relating to SEN and disability - both highlighted as priority subjects by the new Government.

EPPE has shown that the children most sensitive to the quality of provision are children with SEN, children with multiple disadvantages, and boys. Another of its findings is that children at risk of SEN who attend a high-quality early childhood provision have reduced risk at school entry.

'EPPE shows the importance of quality and the benefits of quality,' says Professor Sylva. 'Good-quality early years provision transforms the learning of all children, but especially those at risk of later difficulties, and they become better and more efficient learners.

'The children that the Conservative Party are most concerned about are the children who are most sensitive to quality, and this is why it is so important that the Government really invests in quality provision.'

WASTE OF MONEY?

In recent weeks, with rumours rife that the new Government was set to scrap the Early Years Foundation Stage, the EYFS has been denounced as a waste of money. A report by the Centre for Policy Studies says it is 'questionable' whether it encourages good practice or has much practical effect. A study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) suggests that while children who attend early years settings before the age of three have higher Foundation Stage Profile assessment scores than those starting at three or four, the quality of the provision makes no difference.

But Professor Sylva says there is no strong evidence to say the EYFS is a waste of money, pointing to the steady rise in EYFS Profile results and noting that the Millennium Cohort children analysed in the NIESR report were born in 2000 and so attending early years provision before the EYFS was introduced.

'The NIESR report looked at the children's performance at the age of five as a consequence of their early years experience, but they were having that experience before the EYFS,' she explains. 'It does not prove anything about the EYFS.

'What we do know about the EYFS is that from the EYFS profile there have been strong improvements in the last few years - when the EYFS has been operating. There is not strong evidence to make that claim (that the EYFS is a waste of money) and the evidence published from the EYFS profiles goes in another direction.'

NEW STRENGTH

Professor Sylva feels the EYFS has much to recommend it. 'The genius of the EYFS is that it took two curricular documents and melded them together and brought new strength to them, bringing in a curricular emphasis to the under-threes and bringing in an emphasis on family relationships to the over-threes.

'The EYFS gives a common vocabulary and a common framework for professional discussions across the sector which we have never had before.'

As for the forthcoming review, she says, 'I think practitioners would like a serious review, but I can't imagine they want to drop the EYFS altogether. A survey by Early Education in 2009 found that the majority of early years staff favoured the EYFS in general.

'I do not believe that people want to throw it out wholesale. They like its emphasis on relationships and they like the structure of it. They do not like the goals related to full stops and starting sentences with capital letters.

'I am cautiously optimistic about this review. I hope the Government will be open-minded and will consult widely. When I hear everybody bashing the EYFS, I have to say it has so many components. When I go into settings I sometimes see so much elaborate planning that I do think a little less paperwork would not be a bad thing.'

Some critics who want to see the early years landscape that was created by Labour bulldozed say EPPE is out of touch, as it started before initiatives such as children's centres were introduced.

However, Professor Sylva points out, 'It did look at the forerunners to children's centres, which at the time were called "combined centres", as they combined care and education. The vast majority of these forerunners of children's centres, studied in EPPE, were former nursery schools with teachers as the heads and teachers on the staff producing excellent provision. So EPPE can tell you what high-quality children's centres can do. It cannot tell you about newer forms of children's centre because they are not in the EPPE sample and they will be different from current children's centres.'

In austere times, when obtaining value for money is crucial, EPPE can continue to be a major influence on Government policymaking by identifying cost-effective ways of helping disadvantaged and vulnerable children.


THE INFLUENCE OF EPPE

The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project is Europe's largest longitudinal study of a national sample of young children's progress and development.

The initial study (1997-2003) followed 3,000 children through various types of pre-school education. It has since been extended to chart the children through primary and secondary school. The latest extension (EPPSE 16+, 2008-2013) tracks them through their final year of compulsory school and into their post-school educational, training and employment choices.

In the foreword to Early Childhood Matters - Evidence from the Effective Pre-school and Primary Education Project, published earlier this year, Gillian Pugh says, 'Seldom, if ever, in any area of public policy can a research project have had such a strong impact on policy and practice as the EPPE project has had on early childhood education in England.

'With its findings on the the benefits of quality pre-school, EPPE contributed to reports of the House of Commons education select committee, ministerial briefings and Treasury spending reviews. It was key to the Labour Government's focus on the early years as a means to eradicate inequalities.'

The findings on the impact of quality provision drove up standards in the sector and influenced the Ten-Year Childcare Strategy. The free entitlement for threeand four-year-olds, the new framework for training and the development of Early Years Professional Status all owe much to EPPE.

Early Childhood Matters - Evidence from the Effective Pre-school and Primary Education Project, edited by Kathy Sylva, Edward Melhuish, Pam Sammons, Iram Siraj-Blatchford and Brenda Taggart (£24.99, Routledge, www.routledge.com)

 

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