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Early Years

Supporting children’s early learning and development.


Early years education aims to ensure that young children have high-quality learning experiences before they start school.

Gaps between more affluent children and their peers emerge before the age of 5, so efforts to support children’s learning in the early years are likely to be particularly important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Early education approaches typically include:

  • communication and language activities,
  • play-based learning,
  • interactive story-book reading, physical and creative activities, and
  • support for parents to encourage learning at home.

Early Years Toolkit

Our Early Years Toolkit – an accessible summary of educational research – aims to help early years practitioners use their resources to improve learning outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged children.

More than 1,500 individual studies are grouped into 12 important topics, each summarised in terms of the average impact on: (1) attainment, (2) the strength of the supporting evidence, and (3) the cost. 

Like the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, the Early Years Toolkit is a live resource and a crucial part of our efforts to help close the attainment gap.

You can access it here.

Guidance Reports

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Toolkit strands

Evidence Summary

There is good evidence of the importance of early years education to a range of outcomes, and particularly for children from low-income families.

The EPPSE study (a longitudinal study assessing children’s development) found that children attending a high-quality pre-school showed an effect on attainment at the end of primary school when compared to those attending lower quality pre-school. High-quality provision is likely to be characterised by:

  • positive, purposeful interactions between staff and children,
  • activities that support children’s language development,
  • the development of early number concepts, and
  • self-regulation.

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.

However, despite good evidence linking the quality of early years settings with better outcomes, there are relatively few high-quality intervention studies in the UK showing the best ways that schools and early years settings can promote better practices in a workforce with wide-ranging qualifications.

The EEF has funded 7 projects with a focus on early years so far. One of these is now complete and provides good evidence of a promising approach: the Nuffield Early Language Intervention sought to improve academic attainment by supporting pupils to develop their spoken language. The approach involved training teaching assistants in nursery and reception to support small groups of children with relatively poor spoken language skills.

The independent evaluation of this project found positive impacts on children’s language, equivalent to about +4 months of additional progress for children receiving a 30-week intervention across nursery and reception, and some evidence that the effect persisted at six-month follow-up. This was the second trial of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention showing positive effects, and the project is currently being trialled again on a larger scale.

Other approaches that EEF is currently testing in early years include ways of training and supporting staff to improve language (URLEY) and maths (Maths Champions), and ways of engaging parents in children’s learning (PeepEasyPeasy, and Family Skills).

Promising Projects

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Nuffield Early Language Intervention

University College London and ICAN

grade promising project

Improving spoken language skills in young children around the time that they start school

Evidence Strength
Impact (months)
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URLEY (Using Research Tools to Improve Language in the Early Years)

University of Oxford, UCL, and A+ Education

Professional development and mentoring for early years practitioners to improve quality, using Environment Rating Scales.

Progress: 80%
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  • EEF literature review: Early language development (2017). Co-funded with Public Health England, this report assesses needs, provision, and interventions related to language development for pre-school children, particularly those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Early Years Measures database: an online database of measures. One of the challenges in this field is measuring changes in development with young children. To help address this, the EEF commissioned UCL Institute of Education to complete a systematic review of measures in this area.The linked resources include an online database of measures assessing the quality of measures and a guidance document for selecting, using and interpreting measures. Read our blog about it here.
  • The Early Intervention Foundation’s Guidebook provides evidence reviews on a large number of early years programmes.
  • EEF has published three early years guidance reports: Preparing for LiteracyImproving Literacy in Key Stage 1, and Working with Parents to Support Children's Learning. Early Maths is scheduled for publication in early 2020.