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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


These videos were produced by Soundhouse Media.

Click here to download a folder containg all of these videos (.zip file 200MB)


Findings: Objective 4

To integrate perceptions of the accreditation process of the ET programme and to identify overlaps and gaps in provision.

This section looks at accreditation and mentoring because the two areas are so closely linked in ET, before exploring some overlaps and gaps in provision, especially in relationship to ECaT in particular and partnership working in general. It is based on analysis of interviews with LA and children's centre staff.


The I Can ET accreditation visit (at supportive level) aims to ensure that the staff and the setting have "skills and knowledge to support all children's communication development" (I Can 2006a: 3). Competences across five standards are demonstrated by the building of a portfolio of evidence and observation and interviews by an I Can accreditor. Accreditors generally hold qualifications in speech and language therapy, education, or educational psychology and are members of a professional body (I Can 2006b). The accreditation standards (I Can 2008) for settings suggest that the accreditors should be drawn from local early years' specialists, early years' advisors and special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs).

The setting portfolio is submitted in advance of the accreditation visit. The observations and interviews take place on a one day visit by the accreditor with half the day allocated to report writing and feedback (I Can 2006c). Accreditors are advised that "it is a good idea to observe at least one third of the staff, particularly those with management responsibilities" for a short period of five minutes; further observations may be made if this does not capture the information required (I Can 2006c: 6). Accreditors are advised that it is sufficient to interview the most senior member of staff in small settings, although questions of clarification may be asked of other staff present; interviews should last a maximum of 20 minutes. Accreditation status is valid for three years with two periodic reviews which involve completing a document and a visit from the accreditor if deemed necessary. Only two of the centres visited had been reviewed formally by I Can; one centre had been asked to audit the SLC skills of new staff and to develop a policy document to support EAL. One centre, 15 months post-accreditation at the time of our visit, had not yet been asked to review their progress. This seems to represent a missed opportunity in terms of both monitoring SLC progress in the centre and ensuring that the centre is aware of developments in SLC practice.

The LA interviewees all appreciated the support, both past and present, from I Can. However, cost implications reduced their use of the I Can services mainly to buying in mentor training and accreditation. As noted earlier, ECaT funding often financially supported the I Can process, thus budget cuts could squeeze funding for ET accreditation.

LAs expressed some concerns about the accreditation process: one interviewee stated that they thought it was too inflexible and did not allow for the range of different contexts in which children's centres operate. Managers and ET leads provided some examples of this range of contexts and the difficulties they created. Teams based in other services and with very different structures of line management made providing appropriate CPD for all staff problematic; this also led to different funding allowances from LAs for staff cover for training purposes. Some children's centres had private nursery provision in tandem with the children's centre nursery: in one centre (1-05) the outdoor area was shared between the PVI nursery and the children's centre nursery. While this may offer a genuine opportunity to share enhanced communicative practice, centre practitioners found listening to what they termed 'didactic' control of children and poor communication strategies distressing. In two Stage 1 centres, the "pre-school space" was shared by primary school early years' children (not exposed to ET) and children's centre nursery children whose setting has been accredited for ET. Such examples demonstrate a few of the problems associated with accrediting ET. While we acknowledge that I Can were working towards developing different standards to accommodate some of the specific challenges of children's centres, we recommend that they also take into account the perceptions of the LA interviewees that one size does not fit all.

The accreditation process became a major hurdle to one of the Stage 3 centres which had built their portfolio and is generally acknowledged as a "model of good practice" (ET lead). However, pressure of work led them to ask for a time extension for their portfolio submission and accreditation visit. This request coincided with the LA re-structuring and the transfer of the ET accreditor to a different area. The ET lead said she felt unsupported in the accreditation process, with no direction about how to re-submit or any future cost implications: "We were left to it on our own really and I did feel quite isolated".

LAs perceived ECaT to be generally more challenging, longer term, and providing more in-depth mentoring by the LAs; LA and centre staff saw ET in terms of confirmation and validation of existing good practice and a good baseline for developing practitioner skills in SLC. Centres also foregrounded much ECaT documentation as an example of their focus on SLC. Although the ECaT programme was not researched per se, we would recommend that practitioner and LA perceptions of ECaT and ET be considered with a view to incorporating some elements of ECaT into future planning for the development of the I Can model.


Skills development may begin with the ET training/trainers but is further developed and validated by mentors during the implementation, portfolio building and accreditation processes of ET. Post-accreditation mentoring is intended to support the embedding and sustaining of skills and strategies in the setting (although this was limited in ET). The mentor's role was perceived differently depending on the context. We have used the National Framework for Mentoring and Coaching (CUREE 2004-5) to distinguish between mentoring, specialist coaching, and collaborative coaching or co-coaching.

Local Authority views

In all the LAs, ET mentors were LA personnel. In LA1, the local lead for SLC had brought the concept of the I Can ET programme with her to the LA; each children's centre had an assigned SaLT who delivered personalised ET training for her centre; thus mentoring was apparently provided by the NHS. The local lead appeared confused by the question about mentors and claimed she had "never come across or used the term mentoring in relation to I Can". Moreover, she claimed there is no formal instruction for those who have trained to take it back to the setting. In LA1 all the early years SaLTs were trained I Can accreditors and termly network meetings were organised by the strategic and local leads for SLC.

In LA2, all children's centre teachers and early years consultants were ET trained. Mentors were usually an early years consultant or children's centre teacher, supported by an SLC senior management board. The local lead commented that mentors should be "fit for purpose". The strategic lead however, remarked that ECaT mentoring supported the ET mentor training and ET materials had to be "tweaked" to fit each setting's context. ET was seen as a "tool for workforce development" (and entry to ECaT) and thus as CPD in its own right. LA3 had a pool of ET trained mentors and accreditors who were a mixture of NHS and education staff. The local lead felt that I Can mentor training was "useful but not entirely thorough and not particularly in-depth". She commented that the ET mentoring had to be complemented in the LA by another quality assurance model which had greater depth and reflection. One issue highlighted was that the ET mentor training lacked emphasis and needed more focus on "peer coaching, support and how to move practice on without being too directing". This was regarded as "a tricky balance", particularly for SaLTs who come to mentor training with a medical model which may not include improving practitioners' skills.

Children's centres' perceptions

As already stated, centres gave mixed messages about mentoring both in the settings which were a year post-accreditation and those who were near, or immediately, post-accreditation. In two centres (1-05 & 2-07, the latter in LA2), only the manager or ET lead had direct access to the mentor and any practitioner queries or problems were channelled to the mentor via management. In other centres, staff had direct access to the mentors. The mentoring format ranged from intensive weekly support visits including observation, modelling and training (2-06) to relatively light touch:

"They did the training and they gave us workbooks to work through and then accredited us. It was really good they were accessible" (1-02).

Thus, the range of mentoring was so varied and interwoven with the input from ECaT that we can only draw tentative conclusions from this analysis. The LAs interviewed did identify issues with the ET mentor training, however, and there remains concern that some children's centres could not identify their mentors and did not have a clear understanding of what constitutes effective mentoring.

Overlaps and gaps: ECaT and other SLC interventions

In the three LAs interviewed, ET pre-dated ECaT. They had all been involved in ET for some time, piloting initiatives and resources in return for entry to aspects of the programme. In LA2 and LA3, ET was perceived as a baseline model for entry to ECaT which was thought to be more challenging; in LA1, the ET and ECaT programmes were perceived as parallel. In LA3, the strategic lead stated that the child SLC developmental monitoring processes of ECaT enabled the settings to monitor those children who are just below the level for referral, but did not pick up the broader EYF Profile range. A strategic lead felt that ET offered a good grounding but then "it's off you go", whereas ECaT was more sustained with training and an action plan every half-term. The ECaT consultant observed regularly in the setting and fed back to settings which were expected to cascade good practice to a 'buddy' setting.

Apart from ECaT, the only other interventions the LAs were involved in at a strategic level were the Hanen and Elklan programmes (see 4.5 below for details). In LA2 it was felt that the Hanen training was time-consuming and a big commitment for practitioners.

Children's centres visited were involved in a number of small-scale SLC programmes and initiatives. All but one were involved with ECaT. Although interviewees were not specifically asked about ECaT, a number of comments and opinions were collected. Managers stated that ECaT was both a natural progression from ET and a way to maintain its momentum. In another setting, having an ECaT lead had maintained interest in ET after accreditation and there were examples of ECaT practitioners working with the ET lead to support SLC strategies. In focus groups, there was some confusion about ET and ECaT and their specific focus, particularly among practitioners with lower level qualifications. Thus, on balance, senior staff did not appear to find that there was an overlap between ET and ECaT but more work needed to be undertaken with practitioners to distinguish between the two initiatives.