Early years intervention

Moderate impact for very high cost, based on extensive evidence.

What is it?

Early years or early childhood interventions are approaches that aim to ensure that young children have educationally based pre-school or nursery experiences which prepare for school and academic success, usually through additional nursery or pre-school provision. Many of the researched programmes and approaches focus on disadvantaged children. Some also offer parental support. The research summarised here looks at general or multi-component programmes and approaches.

For more information about the impact of different aspects of early years provision please see the Early Years Toolkit.

How effective is it?

Overall, the evidence suggests that early years and pre-school intervention is beneficial. On average, early years interventions have an impact of five additional months' progress, and appear to be particularly beneficial for children from low income families.

Once early years provision is in place, efforts to improve the quality of provision, for example by training staff, appear to be more promising than simply increasing the quantity of provision by providing extra hours in the day, or by changing the physical environment of early years settings.

In most studies, the impact on attainment tends to reduce over time, though impact on attitudes to school tends to be more durable. There is no established amount of time over which the fade takes place; rather, there is a pattern of decline over time. Early years and pre-school interventions are therefore not sufficient to close the gap in attainment for disadvantaged children.

How secure is the evidence?

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 later age.

Evaluations of Sure Start 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.

What are the costs?

Understandably the costs are high, as adult/child ratios in pre-school provision tend to be higher than in school classes and family interventions have similar high costs. The average cost per child of a Sure Start Local Programme was £1,300 in2009/10, 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 £5800. Overall, the costs are estimated as very high.

What should I consider?

High quality provision is essential with well-qualified and well-trained staff.

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 (1 year +) and starting early (i.e. at 3 years old) is more likely to have an impact than shorter sessions starting later, which on average produce much lower gains.

Disadvantaged children benefit from good-quality programmes, especially where these include a mixture of children from different social backgrounds, and a strong educational component.

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