Early years research programme to plug 'analysis gap'

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Thousands of nurseries, pre-schools and childminders are being invited to take part in a new independent research programme, set up to address the perceived gap in robust analysis of the early years sector.

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Run by specialist early years research agency Ceeda, the independent large-scale research project aims to recruit a representative panel of 3,000 PVI non-domestic settings and 1,000 childminders. They will share information several times a year to provide an up-to-date picture of the sector.

The research programme has been launched in response to widespread concern among early years organisations and settings that research commissioned by the Department for Education to inform policy lacks in-depth analysis and relevant up-to-date information.

Ceeda says major policy developments including the 30-hour childcare offer for working parents, changes to qualification requirements and new funding models have been introduced on the basis of limited evidence with no long-term strategy to monitor impact on market, capacity, quality and sustainability.

The About Early Years programme aims to become the authoritative source of market analysis for the early years sector, supported directly by the sector in the form of sponsorship from early years organisations, settings and training organisations, among others.

The Pre-school Learning Alliance has a lead role as founding sponsor. Nursery group and social enterprise the London Early Years Foundation is also playing a key role, as sponsor of the Quality and Capacity research theme. The other themes are Drivers of Demand, Early Years Workforce, and Market Value and Sustainability.

Up to date
The panel of 4,000 early years settings will be surveyed three times a year in spring, summer and autumn on core regular subjects, including occupancy levels, and specialist topics such as recruitment and delivery costs.

The data provided by settings will contribute to three research bulletins a year, culminating in an annual State of the Early Years Sector report.

The data, primarily produced in report format during 2017, will be available free to everyone with an interest in early years, with analysis shared via the sector, in media and through e-news bulletins.

There are also plans to develop an interactive online data dashboard in 2018, and apps so that datasets can also be examined this way.

Early years providers that take part in the research will also receive analysis tailored to their setting to help them with business planning.

Recent Government-commissioned research, such as the latest DfE survey of Childcare and Early Years Providers in England 2016, was based on interviews with 10,000 providers between March and July last year before new early years funding rates were published and the 30-hour pilots started.

Dr Jo Verrill, managing director of Ceeda, told Nursery World that the scale and frequency of the research will mean that the findings won’t be out of date and that the research will be ongoing.

‘It’s a completely different approach to what’s been going on in the past,’ she said. ‘It will benefit the sector and there will be a direct return for settings in terms of the management information they will have.’

DfE time lag
The latest report from the DfE’s longitudinal Study of Early Education and Development (SEED) was published in January, but as Jennifer Gill, a valuer in childcare and education at agents Christie & Co, pointed out, the research was undertaken between April and December 2015, meaning that nearly two years have passed since the study started.

‘When reflecting upon the time lag between consultation and publication of the research findings, the timeframe is excessive and the longevity of the report has potentially already expired,’ she said.

The Pre-school Learning Alliance has publicly raised its concerns about the data used by the DfE, winning a victory last month after a Freedom of Information request by forcing the department to publish research it had commissioned.

The early years organisation criticised the data as ‘flimsy’ and said it was ‘shameful’ that it took the Information Commissioner’s Office to step in before the research – carried out by Deloitte in 2015 to inform decisions about early years funding rates – was published.

‘Robust, independent’
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Alliance said, ‘Having worked with Ceeda on a number of research projects, we are pleased and excited to be part of this new venture. We know first-hand the value of robust, independent early years research, and at a time of intense sector debate, About Early Years will provide a vital intelligence base from which to inform and influence early years policy.’

June O’Sullivan, chief executive of LEYF, said, ‘The sector has been rocked by recruitment, retention and funding problems due mainly to ill-conceived Government policy. Whatever the cause, we have a duty to step up to the plate, find our own solutions and keep children firmly at the centre.

‘Ceeda is an independent organisation well-respected in the sector. This is an opportunity to come together as a sector and shape our own future – if we don’t, who will?’

jo-verrillDR JO VERRILL, MANAGING DIRECTOR, CEEDA

I read with a sinking heart last month the latest DfE childcare provider survey. Another major public investment in research which brings us little closer to the answers the sector needs, and fast.

What does it cost to deliver an hour of quality childcare – how does this vary, why and what does this mean for how we set and distribute funding? What is the scale of staff recruitment and retention problems and what is fuelling them – pay levels, qualification requirements, unmet training needs and skills gaps?

What does all this mean for sector capacity to deliver both funded and private provision – right now and into the future?

Regular, large-scale analysis of these issues simply does not exist. This matters, because without it the PVI sector is rudderless. The apprentice pipeline is shrinking, experienced practitioners are leaving, funding rates are fixed until 2020 while costs continue to rise and funded provision expands.

Most of all it matters because children ultimately pay the price if the quality and availability of childcare is compromised. 

History tells us local and national government will not fill this gap. It is time to seize the initiative – About Early Years will do just that. It’s different. Led by independent researchers, informed by a sector advisory group and sponsored by organisations with a passion for early education, it will collect large-scale data three times a year, year-on-year.

We are delighted that the Pre-school Learning Alliance is taking a lead role as founding sponsor of the programme.

The London Early Years Foundation is also to play a key strategic role as sponsor of the ‘Quality and Capacity’ research theme. Early supporters also include the Childbase Partnership, Connect Childcare and NEyTCO.

We are inviting everyone with an interest in the early years to get involved and support this
vital work.

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