Study links UK policy change to quality

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Staff-to-child ratios, and more importantly, staff qualifications and in-service training can predict the quality of pre-school childcare settings, a new study has found.

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Better staff-to-child ratios were found to be a sign of quality

  • Policy changes have led to higher-quality early years provision, study finds
  • Qualifications and training more important than ratios
  • Others ‘can learn from UK’

Staff-to-child ratios, and more importantly, staff qualifications and in-service training can predict the quality of pre-school childcare settings, a new study has found.

The research by Professor Edward Melhuish (pictured) and Julian Gardiner from the Department of Education at the University of Oxford has found that better-qualified staff maintain the quality of state-funded pre-schools, making up for the larger number of children per staff member in comparison to private and voluntary settings.

The findings also show that the quality of private early years settings can be predicted by staff qualifications, and for voluntary settings by an in-house training plan and a better staff-to-child ratio.

The paper, called ‘Structural factors and policy change as related to the quality of early childhood education and care for 3-4 year olds in the UK’, is published in the journal Frontiers in Education.

The authors also compared data before and after substantial policy change in the UK between 1999 and 2014, which was aimed at increasing the uptake and improving the quality of early years education and care.

The findings indicate that such policy changes could have powerful effects in improving pre-school and nursery settings for three- to four-year-olds, with implications for long-term child, and potentially adult, well-being.

The research is based on a comparison between the two major longitudinal studies for early childhood education and care (ECEC) in England, the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) study, carried out before major policy change, and the ongoing Study of Early Education and Development (SEED).

The researchers used observations of nearly 600 ECEC settings in England and collected information on training, qualifications, ratios and other factors through staff interviews.

The aim was to investigate the associations between structural and process quality measures at settings in the SEED study, and to explore the hypothesis that these relationships may vary according to the type of ECEC setting, e.g. private provision, state-funded, etc.

‘Structural quality’ covers factors including number of places, staff-to-child ratio, SEND provision, mean level of staff qualification, the manager’s highest qualification and whether the setting offers continuing professional development.

Overall ‘process quality’ was based on observational visits using the revised Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS-R).

Staff training and qualifications matter

‘A better staff-to-child ratio leads to improvements in quality, but staff qualifications and training is the most important factor,’ said Professor Melhuish, who is a professor of human development. ‘While there is still a long way to go, the evidence suggests that the policy changes in the UK have led to higher-quality early childhood education and care.’

The researchers argue that ‘if a country improves ECEC quality… it is not only enhancing children’s lives in the “here and now”, it is also advancing the long-term outcomes for children, and by doing so it is investing in the future’.

Substantial policy changes, influenced by research highlighting the benefits of quality education and care for pre-school children, have been implemented in the UK since 1999.

These changes aimed to increase uptake through state-funded provision and improve the quality of teaching, the curriculum and the experiences of the child by enhancing the training and qualifications of staff.

‘We wanted to understand how policy changes might affect the everyday experiences of children in ways that might benefit their long-term development,’ said Professor Melhuish.

The study found that factors predicting the quality of a setting differed depending on how they were funded and managed.

Staff qualifications predicted quality at private (for-profit) settings, whereas at voluntary settings, where staff qualifications were similar, a staff training plan and lower numbers of children per staff member were linked to higher quality.

State-funded settings tended to have higher-quality ratings and it is thought the presence of highly qualified staff maintained this quality despite less-favourable child-to-staff ratios.

Professor Melhuish said, ‘Our study shows that having well-trained and qualified staff increases the quality of education and care in a child’s early years.

‘Also, better staff-to-child ratios mean staff can spend more time in one-to-one interaction with children and this is very beneficial.’

Impact of Government policy

The comparison of datasets from 1998-1999 and 2014-2015, which were before and after a period of substantial policy change in the UK, revealed that the quality of early years education and care has risen significantly over this time.

The researchers said they hope that findings from the study can provide important indications about ways that child development may be enhanced through policy change.

While some of the factors that produce high-quality ECEC are clear, ‘well-qualified staff/managers and adequate staff-to-child ratios being the best attested’ and more research is needed, lessons from the two longitudinal studies ‘provide an important indication for other countries about ways that child development may be enhanced through policy change, contributing to improvements in child well-being and later adult development’.

Professor Melhuish said that the research and evidence-based policy approach in the UK had lessons for other countries, as acknowledged by international organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

‘Existing evidence would lead us to expect that these changes will have long-term benefits for the population and future economic development of the country, as economic development in the modern world is increasingly dependent on the education of the workforce,’ Professor Melhuish said.

Future work should focus on enhancing staff training, he suggested.

‘There is a need to enhance staff qualifications and in-service professional development, because training on the job is so effective,’ he said. ‘So much existing training is inadequate and based on ideology rather than evidence of what actually helps children’s development,’ he said.

  • ‘Structural factors and policy change as related to the quality of early childhood education and care for 3-4 year olds in the UK’ is published in the May 2019 edition of Frontiers in Education.
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