In the early 1990s, it was still possible for Ministers to argue that early-childhood education was a luxury the taxpayer couldn’t afford. Although Britain’s best nurseries were renowned and studied round the world, there was little empirical evidence demonstrating their concrete, ongoing benefits for children. For most families, meanwhile, a mixed bag of pre-school provision was on offer via a classic postcode lottery.
By 1997, with a General Election looming, the Conservative Government had begun a substantial programme of nursery investment and regulation. The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education project was commissioned to find out what types of provision and early experiences were most effective.
The longitudinal study that grew incrementally into the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education programme (EPPSE) following 3,000 children from 3-16+ brought together a rare combination: research funded by Government with a genuinely open mind, carried out by excellent and dedicated academics savvy enough to work with and influence politicians of all stripes.
Now, not only do we know for sure that pre-school pays off, straight through to age 16, we know how much difference it makes – the equivalent of getting seven B grades at GCSE, rather than seven C grades. This was the headline finding of EPPSE’s latest report published last month. And thanks to the detailed work that began 17 years ago at the IOE, we also know what excellent nursery provision looks like.
The EPPSE project, whose researchers are now wrapping up their work at the IOE, Oxford and Birkbeck, has become one of the highest impact educational research programmes in Europe. As Curee’s Philippa Cordingley has said: “There’s something completely compelling about the mix of types of data, the rigour in the analysis, the commitment to researching over the long haul and the clarity of focus on the young people’s learning and development and the work of those who support them.”
EPPSE’s findings underpin billions in Government spending on nursery expansion, including the Sure Start programme, the extension of free pre-school to all three and four-year-olds in 2010 and this year, to the poorest 40% of two-year-olds this year. The work of the IOE team, that included Professor Iram Siraj and Brenda Taggart as Principal Investigators, explored how teachers interact with children. Their case studies have had a massive influence on practice and pedagogy.
Siraj’s term, “sustained shared thinking” – describing the way the best teachers help children to learn and extend their ideas – has become part of the everyday language of early years practice. Many local authorities and nurseries voluntarily use the ECERS-E scale devised by three of the EPPSE PIs, for evaluating the quality of their setting. EPPSE’s evidence on the importance of nursery teacher qualifications has helped change government policy and teacher education courses.
EPPSE’s evidence documenting excellent pre-school education and its ongoing benefits, especially for the most deprived children, has fed heavily into England’s early childhood curriculum and informed curricula in countries as diverse as Australia, China and Brazil. Nursery World editor Liz Roberts has noted “how highly regarded the Early Years Foundation Stage is around the world”.
At a time when so many claims are made that policy is evidence-informed, yet there’s often so little evidence that it really is, we should stop to celebrate the achievements of a research programme that has truly made a difference to millions of children’s futures and will continue to do so.
Exploring Effective Pedagogy in Primary Schools by Iram Siraj and Brenda Taggart has just been published by Pearson.
EPPSE’s latest reports on the secondary phase can be downloaded here