Where’s the evidence?

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The Department for Education’s recently announced pledge to improve social mobility offers some hope but is largely flawed

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Natalie Perera

The DfE has announced a package of support aimed at boosting social mobility in the early years. Covering three domains of the home learning environment, early years settings and local services (and worth £100 million), it is not insignificant.

But while it makes sense to focus on those three domains, I’m unconvinced that all of the activities and interventions underpinning this package are rooted in the best available evidence.

Arguably, the most promising intervention is the commitment to train 3,000 early years practitioners to support children’s development in language, literacy and numeracy. Not only is the focus on upskilling the workforce welcome, but there is also funding set aside for evaluation so that we can learn about the effectiveness of the programme. Along with additional funding for EEF trials, there is opportunity here to continue to build the evidence of what does and doesn’t work.

I’m less encouraged by some of the other activities, not least the promotion of apps and using retail staff to support parents’ interactions with their children. Evidence is clear that the home learning environment is crucial in improving outcomes. But, let’s be clear, these are not evidence-based interventions. If the DfE needs better ideas, it should look to a recent feasibility study conducted by the IFS. Reach Up, which has been piloted in Peterborough, is a programme of regular home visits that aims to improve parent-child interactions through building the knowledge and confidence of parents.

Meanwhile, pledges to create more nursery places in schools, train more health visitors in speech and language, and create ‘parent champions’, are well-meaning, but the Government is building on a weakened infrastructure. Creating sticking plaster solutions is unlikely to fix the problems caused by the regressive nature of the 30-hour entitlement, sector-wide concerns about funding rates and the closure of 1,000 Children’s Centres.

And not only are there issues with the funding and accessibility of public services – austerity measures are also likely to have compromised the physical space and resources available to disadvantaged families in the home.

So, a mixed bag from the DfE. While I welcome opportunities to innovate, the reality is that disadvantaged young children need evidence-based interventions now. We therefore need a programme of support that isn’t built on sand.

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