Mapping early years practice in England: results from our pilot
The aim of this pilot study was to better understand the factors that affect different levels of progress among children eligible for free school meals in the early years, especially those influenced by local public services.
Outcomes for disadvantaged children in the reception year of school vary considerably across local authorities (LAs) in England and between neighbourhoods. We know that context matters, and that disadvantaged children in some areas achieve good outcomes against the odds.
We worked with representatives from LAs and sector experts to develop a detailed interview and survey framework to explore:
- the policies, practices and activities in key early years service areas
- local authority representatives’ views about the practices, policies and local factors that make the biggest difference to children’s outcomes in their area.
The ultimate goal of this pilot was to test an approach for collecting data on early years policies and practices, and conduct an initial analysis to explore if any trends could be identified.
This pilot study demonstrates that there are large variations in early years practices in LAs. Of the 27 LAs surveyed there were:
- 212 different challenges identified across all aspects of early years
- 63 different parenting programmes offered across the sample and between one and eight programmes delivered in each area (as identified from a pre-selected list)
- 34 different training programmes offered for practitioners involved in the Healthy Child Programme
- 14 different assessment tools used, which were delivered in up to nine different ways. The WellComm (a non-statutory assessment tool) was being used in 11 local areas; universally in eight areas and in a targeted way in an additional three areas
- individual local authorities were each using between zero and nine early years assessment tools. The most common number of assessment tools in use was between two and three.
We also identified:
- A range of practices in how the healthy child programme is delivered
- large variation in the proportion of parents who take up their child’s two-year-old review, and varied practices in whether data is collected about why a parent does not attend
- LA respondents think that parenting programmes and courses have an important role to play in supporting parenting and the home learning environment
- the majority of respondents said that they follow parenting programmes as closely as possible based on the guidance, and they also make adaptations to suit families
- the majority of LAs who responded said that the resource available for promoting the free entitlement to early education (FEEE) in their area had increased; however in some areas it had reduced
- some LAs said that there were now fewer childcare places available in disadvantaged areas compared with before the pandemic
- around half of respondents also said that since the pandemic, providers have become less willing to provide places for children entitled to the two-year-old FEEE
- high performing local authorities in our sample were more likely to be using data regularly in their work for a variety of purposes (including assessing and tracking children’s outcomes and monitoring families’ engagement with services).
We are exploring options for further analysis of the data we have already gathered. This could include publishing case studies of LAs in which children who are eligible for free school meals do better than those in similar LAs. We might also conduct further qualitative analysis of the interview data to learn more about key themes.
This pilot study will provide important data and information as we develop our fairer start mission and seek to develop scalable solutions that really make a difference to closing the disadvantage gap.
The Nesta team would like to thank all the local authority staff who participated in this project. We appreciate that it was a substantial time commitment assembling information for the survey, as well as participating in the interview.