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I CAN's Early Talk Programme:

Independent evaluation of the impact of Early Talk on addressing speech, communication & language needs in Sure Start Children's Centre settings

Dr Judy Whitmarsh, Dr Michael Jopling, Prof Mark Hadfield


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Executive Summary

This qualitative evaluation of the I Can Early Talk (ET) programme at supportive level was commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), now the Department for Education (DfE). The research was conducted by the Centre for Developmental and Applied Research in Education (CeDARE) at the University of Wolverhampton in 14 Sure Start children's Centres (children's centres) in England in 2010, focusing on children aged 3 to 4 years old. Although the report, its findings and recommendations are necessarily bounded by the approach taken to the evaluation and the evidence collected, efforts have been made to contextualise the findings in light of the change of Government since the research was commissioned and reflect the shift from central provision towards more localised services and partnerships.

Early Talk

ET is designed to improve the knowledge and skills of early years' practitioners in order to improve speech language and communication (SLC) outcomes for children 0-5 years. It was devised by I Can, a national charity which supports the communication of children and young people.

ET has three levels: supportive, enhanced and specialist. In May 2007 the Department for Health together with the Department for Education and Skills began a pilot programme with I Can to roll out ET at the supportive level in over 200 children's centres in England, aimed at improving the speech, language and communication skills of children in the early years. This evaluation focused on the implementation of ET at the supportive level in 14 children's centres.

Sure Start children's centres

children's centres provide services for children under the age of five and their families. Under the current core offer services include: family support, health care, advice and support for parents, outreach services, childcare and training and employment advice. At the end of July 2010 there were 3,634 children's centres operational in England, providing services for over 2.9 million children under 5 and their families. 1,800 of those children's centres were in the 30 per cent most disadvantaged areas in England. The network of children's centres is a universal service which is accessible to families and highly visible in local communities, but which targets support towards the most vulnerable and disadvantaged families. Many children's centres and other early years settings use established communication programmes like I CAN's ET programme and the government's Every Child a Talker (ECaT) initiative to support children's development in early language; enhance practitioners' knowledge, skills and understanding in early language development; and increase parents' understanding of and involvement in children's language development.

children's centres were recruited for the evaluation sample in three groups:

Stage 1 centres: at least 6 months post ET accreditation;
Stage 2 centres: approaching accreditation or up to 6 months post-accreditation;
Stage 3 centres: in the early stages of, or considering, implementation.

Nine of the 14 children's centres in the final sample (64 per cent) were located in the 30 per cent most deprived areas in England (see Appendix 1).

Summary conclusions

Overarching conclusions

  • Viewed as a whole, it appeared that ET offered an appropriate balance of support and challenge to consolidate and extend existing good practice in SLC and identify areas for development where practice was less effective.
  • ET is relatively light touch and has been used effectively as a primer for other programmes, notably Every Child a Talker (ECaT), explicitly by some local authorities (LAs).
  • Some LAs did not appear to have sufficient capacity to deliver or coordinate effective mentoring for ET. Others used ECaT consultants as ET mentors, which may affect the use and implementation of ET once ECaT funding is withdrawn in 2011.
  • There was some evidence that where extensive support was required for centres to improve, for example around SLC training or leadership, ET mentoring was not always sufficient to meet centres' needs.
  • It is difficult to gauge the sustainability of ET as it is so deeply intertwined with other SLC initiatives. For example, in some areas, ECaT monitoring tools have supported the implementation of ET, which makes it hard to determine the boundaries between initiatives and their impacts.

Influence on staff

  • There were strong indications that Stage 1 centres experienced a deeper level of cultural change following involvement in ET than Stage 2 centres in that they placed SLC more centrally in their pedagogy and focused on it more persistently.
  • In some Stage 1 centres there were indications of a professional learning community forming around speech, language and communication (SLC), as ET and other initiatives were embedded. The formation of these communities supported a much deeper understanding of, and reflection on, SLC by practitioners.
  • ET played a valuable role in integrating personal understanding of SLC with centres' institutionalisation of good practice in SLC.
  • Institutionalising SLC in children's centres has improved the way some centres nearing and post-accreditation identify and address children's SLC needs. However, it is difficult to determine how far this was related to ET as centres were all involved in other concurrent SLC initiatives such as ECaT.
  • Practitioners in Stage 1 centres demonstrated greater depth of understanding of the pedagogical motivations underpinning the changes they had made to the learning environment.
  • ET leads in Stage 1 and 2 centres identified a greater range of methods to promote good language practice than in Stage 3 centres.
  • Managers associated increased staff confidence and an enhanced ability to identify SLC difficulties with engagement in ET in Stage 1 and 2 centres.
  • In conjunction with other initiatives such as ECaT, a wide range of practitioner' skills were enhanced by their increased focus on, and training for, SLC.
  • Practitioners in all centres found it difficult to distinguish between the impact of ET and ECaT as they became so intertwined in practice.
  • Managers and practitioners in stage 1 and 2 settings felt ET had made them more confident in making earlier identification of speech language and communication needs and developing strategies to support children in the centre.

Meeting the needs of children

  • ET leads in Stage 1 centres identified greater improvement in children's communicative behaviour than those in Stage 2 centres.
  • LAs stated that ET had improved practitioners' ability to develop in-house strategies to support children with additional/special needs and had a positive impact on the referral rate for speech language and communication needs (SLCN).
  • There was evidence in some centres of a tendency to treat children with English as a second language (EAL) on a deficit model, rather than focusing on the potential benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism for SLC development.

Parents' and carers' perspectives

  • 40 per cent of parents surveyed were aware of the ET programme.
  • The largest group of parents noticing change in SLC provision was in Stage 2 centres. However, over half of Stage 3 parents had also noticed changes in how speech and language were promoted, perhaps reflecting the current enhanced status of SLC overall. Fewer Stage 1 parents had noticed changes, which may reflect the institutionalisation of good SLC practice in these centres following ET accreditation and involvement in other SLC initiatives.
  • EAL was regarded by some Stage 2 and 3 centres as a barrier to parental engagement, whereas Stage 1 centres were more likely to perceive engaging with parents as a two-way relationship.

Accreditation, gaps and overlaps

  • The ET accreditation process needs to be flexible to address the range of provision of SLC in children's centres and their contexts.
  • LAs and children's centres had a range of experiences of mentoring. Two of the LAs interviewed used mentors from other programmes such as ECaT to support the ET mentoring process.

Other SLC programmes

  • ECaT was the most common programme used after or in tandem with ET.
  • LAs perceived ET as an acceptable baseline for good SLC practice and in two LAs it was treated as a pre-requisite before centres could engage in what they perceived as the more challenging ECaT programme.
  • Although many practitioners perceived ET and ECaT as almost interchangeable, managers and lead practitioners regarded them as complementary but distinct.

Implementing the recommendations in John Bercow MP's independent review of services for children and young people (0�19) with Speech, Language and Communication Needs

  • ET was used effectively in the three LAs interviewed as a tool to upskill the workforce; one LA claimed it could provide statistical evidence of this.
  • ET appeared to promote the primacy of SLC in children's centres and the early identification of SLCN.
  • ET was considered to add to effective observation and monitoring techniques, although it was used less than ECaT to monitor child SLC progress.

Summary recommendations

  • There is evidence that ET is an effective precursor to programmes such as ECaT. ET validated existing good practice and functioned as an effective baseline for developing practitioner skills in SLC before engaging in what was regarded as extended SLC development through initiatives such as ECaT or more advanced levels of ET. Commissioners of services, local communities and settings such as children's centres need to consider how they might harness support strategically to align programmes like ET with other initiatives so that centres receive appropriate levels of support and/or challenge and can develop a longer term programme of continuing professional development (CPD) and organisational improvement around SLC.
  • The delivery of programmes such as ET needs to consider the existing level of SLC expertise in centres and their local communities when determining the degree of support offered. This may require I Can and others to take a more proactive approach to helping communities identify existing expertise, for example in the provision of external mentoring, to ensure that support is cost- effective and appropriate.
  • Effective mentoring needs to offer mentees CPD and better understanding of change management processes within SLC provision.
  • Programmes such as ET need to place greater emphasis on settings working with parents and carers so that parents and carers better understand how settings approach SLCN and can use that knowledge to support their children's SLC development.
  • Progression and alignment between SLC initiatives could be enhanced if ET used evaluative frameworks from other initiatives, such as ECaT's child monitoring systems, to support settings in monitoring and evaluating outcomes for children.
  • Programmes such as ET need to balance the potential disadvantages for children with EAL by placing more emphasis on valuing bilingualism and its potential for enhancing SLC in children's centres.