Anneka Dawson and Clare Huxley from the Institute for Employment Studies writes about their Process Evaluation experience of our CECIL project, which aims to address inequality in children’s early language and communication.

In January, we wrote about how some of our early years projects have been adapting to the pandemic and we wanted to give a further update on one of these interventions in more detail here.

The CECIL (coaching early conversations in language) project started running in September 2020 and will continue in nurseries until the end of this summer term. It explores two communication and language interventions developed and delivered by speech and language therapy teams from two NHS Trusts, Nottinghamshire and Hackney. The interventions include an element of practitioner continuing professional development (CPD) and coaching support over an academic year and both interventions have been chosen as best practice examples.  37 PVI (private, voluntary and independent) nurseries are taking part in two randomised controlled trial (RCT) studies (one for each intervention) and nurseries are allocated to either an early starter group that has been receiving the programme this year or a late starter programme that receives a condensed version of the programme next year. The project is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, The Sutton Trust and The Lindsell Foundation.

Why do PVIs need targeted support this year?

Research by the Education Policy Institute has shown that practitioners working in PVIs are less likely to hold the same level qualifications or receive the same opportunities as those working in schools and therefore PVIs could be most in need of CPD for their staff. We called for more research in PVIs in our blog last year discussing the findings of our evaluation of the Early Years Toolbox project for the EEF. There is less funded research happening in PVIs due to obstacles such as: children not having unique pupil numbers which make them harder to track long term; high turnover of children and staff; less standardised patterns of child attendance and movement between rooms not in line with academic years. As we discussed previously, PVIs are more at risk of closure this year as there is a funding crisis in nurseries. Initially, the government’s Covid-19 catch- up funding was largely focused on schools and colleges but in late February they announced there would be £10m in pre- reception year funding for an early years language programme. However, no further details have been announced.

Why focus on coaching-based CPD?

Several large-scale communication and language programmes are now being evaluated. For example, the scaled- up version of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention is being rolled out across thousands of nurseries this academic year. However, many of these are still very time limited (often relying only on initial training) and do not provide ongoing support to practitioners to embed their skills in their practice, allowing them to come back with questions and request further support when needed. In contrast, the Hackney ‘Launchpad for Language’ model situates Speech and Language therapists in nurseries for half a day a week over the course of the year so that they become integrated into that classroom. The Nottinghamshire model has a series of training sessions which are accompanied by a series of coaching sessions where videotaped interactions of the practitioners and children are discussed. Our research seeks to explore whether there are additional benefits in providing ongoing, personalised support to practitioners.

How can staff be supported and developed during the Covid-19 pandemic?

The interventions and the research are adapting to the Covid-19 context as they go along. Feasibility work last summer, conducted by the speech and language therapy teams, showed that nurseries were implementing restrictions on external visitors, and staff were allocated to bubbles so face to face training and support would not be possible. Both interventions were adapted to mostly/entirely consist of virtual delivery. This summer, the IES team will ask nurseries if they would prefer training/coaching in-person or whether it is more convenient for nursery staffs’ busy schedules and staff ratios to have it continue virtually even after the pandemic. As restrictions have eased slightly this year, some settings have been able to receive some support or coaching in-person at settings or local health centres so can share their experiences of both.

How can we take lessons from this pandemic year to develop models of support for the future?

As part of the research, we are building a longer-term plan for scale-up of the interventions. We are conducting several dedicated theory of change workshops throughout the year to capture how the intervention changes both in response to practitioner feedback and in the context of Covid-19. Nurseries and speech and language therapists have had to adapt how they operate to incorporate pandemic restrictions and there have been further funding restrictions due to declining child numbers earlier this year as children stayed at home with parents/carers.

While the team at the University of Oxford are focusing on impact assessment, IES is undertaking an implementation and process evaluation to unpack how the two programmes are working in the PVI settings context. This allows researchers to  assess feasibility, scalability and help the speech and language therapy teams develop a manualised description of the programme, which could be used more widely by other speech and language therapy teams in the UK. We are also supporting the speech and language therapy teams to fine-tune their own internal evaluation processes so that they capture feedback that will continue to improve their practice and the design of the intervention going forward.

The ongoing pandemic has created many challenges for nurseries, speech and language therapy teams and the evaluation teams, but it has also helped highlight which aspects of the support and training are of most importance for the speech and language therapists and staff in the nurseries. The significant periods where children have not been able to attend nurseries and playgroups have emphasised the key role that these settings play in helping children learn how to communicate and interact with their peers and adults. We expect to report findings from this evaluation in early 2022 and will continue to share insights from our early years projects on this blog.

This blog was originally published on the Institute for Employment Studies website.

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