Early years or early childhood interventions aim to ensure that young children have educational pre-school or nursery experiences which prepare them for school and academic success. The research summarised here concentrates on the impact of ‘packages’ of early years provision (known as multi-component programmes) rather than on individual early years interventions. Many of the researched programmes and approaches focus on disadvantaged children. Some also offer parental support.
Overall, the evidence suggests that early years and pre-school interventions have a positive impact, delivering an average of around five additional months' progress. The approach appears to be particularly beneficial for children from low income families.
Once early years provision is in place, improving the quality of provision, for example by training staff to improve the interaction between staff and children, appears to be more promising than increasing the quantity of provision (by providing extra hours in the day), or changing the physical environment of early years settings.
In most studies, the impact on attainment tends to reduce over time, although the time this takes varies by approach. This means that even interventions which are effective in narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers will not be sufficient to prevent the gap opening up again in later years. Where an impact on attitudes to school has been found, it tends to be more lasting.
There are a number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses which have looked at the impact of early childhood intervention. Most of these are from the USA, however, where children tend to start school at a relatively late age.
Evaluations of Sure Start early years provision in the UK do not show consistent positive effects and indicate that some caution is needed when generalising from exceptionally successful examples. However, overall the evidence supporting early childhood intervention is robust.
Understandably the costs are very high, as adult/child ratios in pre-school provision tend to be higher than in school classes. Family interventions have similarly high costs. The average cost per child of a Sure Start Local Programme was £1,300 in 2009-2010, so the estimates are in the region of £1,000-£2,000 per child. The average annual cost of sending a child over the age of two to a nursery is about £5,800.
High quality provision with well-qualified and well-trained staff is essential.
High quality provision is likely to be characterised by the development of positive relationships between staff and children and by engagement of the children in activities which support pre-reading, the development of early number concepts and non-verbal reasoning.
Extended attendance (one year or more) and an earlier starting age (three years old) are more likely to have an impact than shorter periods starting later, which deliver lower benefits on average.
Disadvantaged children benefit from high quality programmes, especially where these include a mixture of children from different social backgrounds and a strong educational component.