Early years programmes 'failing to improve literacy and numeracy'

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Early years initiatives, such as Sure Start and the free entitlement for three-and four-year-olds, have not improved children's literacy and numeracy by the time they start school, according to new research.

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The study by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University surveyed the PIPS (Performance Indicators in Primary Schools) scores of 117,000 four and five-year-olds at 472 maintained primary schools throughout England.

Basic levels of development in vocabulary, early reading and maths remained largely unchanged between 2001 and 2008.

PIPS are standardised computerised assessments carried out by a teacher with all children in the first few weeks of starting Reception and measure children’s numeracy, literacy and problem-solving skills. They include asking children whether they can count to seven, differentiate between different sounds, and test children’s vocabulary skills by showing them an image and asking them to identify a variety of objects, from carrots to a microscope.

Children are not assessed on other areas of development, such as their personal, social and emotional development, motor skills or creative development.

Dr Christine Merrell, (pictured), CEM’s primary director who led the research, said, ‘Our data is a very rare dataset and gives an overview across the country. We would have expected to see some change by 2008, with nursery education now so widespread. It’s a bit disappointing that we haven’t seen an educationally significant rise.’

She added, ‘If we really want to improve life for the more vulnerable and poorer sections of society, we need to target assistance much more effectively.

‘It is not just a case of providing books and toys – access is still a major issue. If disadvantaged families can access and use the full range of resources, advice and expertise available, the Sure Start could offer significant help to children from poorer backgrounds.’

She said, ‘Initiatives seem to have failed across the board. We need a widespread, reliable assessment programme.’

Small-scale research studies have found that early years interventions make a difference and lessons needed to be learned about how to apply this when a programme like Sure Start is rolled out on a wider scale, she said. Dr Merrell pointed out that earlier small-scale studies of Sure Start local programmes had shown gains.

‘We need to really evaluate programmes right from the start to make sure they are working, and be prepared to change the intervention if it is not going well, and tweak it. We need to have constant monitoring to check we’re reaching the right children,’ she said.

'Sure Start does make a difference'

But Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, said, 'These findings go against the grain of a mountain of new research which show the enormous benefit of Sure Start for children and their parents.

'We know from running our own Children’s Centres how important Sure Start is in helping families to overcome the damaging effects of poverty and disadvantage. Criticisms highlighted in this study are already being addressed and should not cast doubt over the excellent work happening across the country to ensure that Sure Start makes the biggest difference to those who need it most.'

On Nursery World's Facebook page posters were quick to comment, citing their own positive experiences of Sure Start.

One early years worker wrote, 'I'm really sorry but I beg to differ on this. I'm a childcare provider in a children's centre and have seen a massive improvement with the children we have had attending, especially since the two-year-old funded places.

There's a constant denial that intervention programmes make a difference in areas of high deprivation, when we have seen massive improvements.'

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