On going debate on Early Years curriculum generates more heat than light

But New report helps identify what works abroad-six programmes showing significant impact


There is considerable on-going debate about  how to educate our youngest children and  what is  the right balance to be struck  between play and more formal methods of instruction.

Today, the important question before researchers and policy makers is what kind of preschool or nursery is most effective for young children? Which particular programmes have positive outcomes and what elements of these programmes contribute to their effectiveness?  The early years curriculum has divided  experts and the debate is now somewhat  polarised. Some believe that that we have got the mix about right and young children  need clear goals and targets , others that  the last governments approach  was too prescriptive, was  not evidence based (ignoring best practice in the most successful systems)  and   is  weighted too heavily towards teaching,  not allowing  sufficient time or scope for children to  play, and less formal activities.

Notwithstanding  some difficulties in evaluating the locally delivered  Sure Start programme (the initiative is highly devolved)   what evaluations we have , have delivered at best  mixed findings.  While there have been positive impacts on social development and health outcomes, there has been no significant impact on oral language development, an important precursor to success in school (Belsky & Melhuish, 2007)

A new report from CFBT Education Trust looks at international (mainly US) evidence  ‘‘Effective early childhood education programmes: a best-evidence synthesis’ reviews research on the outcomes of programmes that teach young children in a group setting before they begin reception.

The aim of the review is both to assist educators and policy makers in deciding the types of programmes to implement and to inform researchers about the current evidence on nursery programmes as well as guiding further research. This report systematically reviews research on the outcomes of programmes that teach young children in a group setting before they begin reception. Study inclusion criteria included the use of randomised or matched control groups, and study duration of at least 12 weeks. Studies included valid measures of language, literacy, phonological awareness, mathematical, and/or cognitive outcomes that were independent of the experimental treatments. A total of 40 studies, evaluating 29 different programmes met these criteria for outcomes assessed at the end of preschool and/or reception/kindergarten.

The review concludes that on academic outcomes at the end of preschool and/or reception, six early childhood programmes showed strong evidence of effectiveness and five had moderate evidence of effectiveness.

The best approaches were those that provided a planned curriculum and emphasised teacher-led practice, supported by so-called structured “child-chosen” activities. Of the  programmes reviewed, eight are available for implementation  in the UK.

Most of the studies reviewed were conducted in the US, many in large urban areas. However, the similarities of the challenges of large inner city communities in the US to those in the UK lead one to think, according to the report,  that the findings would likely generalise to the UK.  A few longitudinal studies have followed their subjects into secondary school, and even adulthood. These studies show that comprehensive programmes, from a cognitive developmental perspective rather than a solely academic focus, had better long-term effects on social adjustment outcomes such as reductions in delinquency, welfare dependency, and teenage pregnancy, and increases in educational and employment levels. While the curriculum is one important factor that differentiates early childhood programmes, another factor that also differentiates programmes is the degree of support that the teachers are provided in implementing the curriculum.

The authors state ‘The findings of this review add to a growing body of evidence that programmes can have an important impact on increasing the school readiness of young children. There is a tremendous need for systematic, large-scale, longitudinal, randomised evaluations of the effectiveness of preschool interventions in bringing children from high-risk environments to normative levels of academic achievement. However, this review identifies several promising approaches that could be used today to help children begin primary school ready to succeed’ . Oli de Botton, a senior consultant at the CfBT Education Trust and  former teacher, told  Children and Young People Now recently   that early education should balance the discipline of teaching with play. But he also said that  teacher intervention and use of academic materials improve outcomes significantly, particularly for the most deprived children. “Effective programmes didn’t exclude play, but they did include a significant amount of teacher-directed activity,” he explained.

The full report concludes that on academic outcomes at the end of nursery and/or reception, six programmes originating in the USA, show strong evidence of impact: Curiosity Corner, Direct Instruction, ELLM, Interactive Book Reading, Let’s Begin with the Letter People and Ready Set Leap! Whilst most of the programmes delivered some child-led activities, teacher input was always emphasised.

Effective early childhood education programmes: a best-evidence synthesis(2010)-CfBT Education Trust

Bette Chambers University of York and Johns Hopkins University; Alan Cheung Johns Hopkins University; Robert E. Slavin University of York and Johns Hopkins University; Dewi Smith Success for All Foundation; Mary Laurenzano Johns Hopkins University

For report and case studies see:



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