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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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Findings: Objective 5

To map how the ET programme interlinks with existing programmes of speech language and communication support.

This section is based on comparison of programme documentation, along with evidence from interviews with LA staff primarily, but it is also informed by the perspectives of children's centre staff. It is important to begin by emphasising once more that ET operates at the level of the setting, with the ET lead building up a portfolio of evidence which is accredited by I Can, rather than baselining and monitoring children's development, like ECaT for example. As stated above, the programmes most commonly used to support SLC development in the LAs and children's centres visited other than ET were ECaT, Hanen and Elklan.

ECaT, a well-resourced Government programme, is designed to support SLC development in any type of setting and with practitioner and parental involvement. It celebrates bilingualism and is closely linked with the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Every participating setting appoints and an Early Language lead practitioner who receives advice, training and support from the Early Language consultant, who is appointed specifically to work with ECaT settings. For the lead practitioner, funding is available for training, observations, and visits to other settings. The Early Language Consultant makes regular visits to the setting to offer support; cluster meetings are also available for the lead practitioners. There is an initial audit and assessment visit before the next steps are planned. ECaT includes a child monitoring tool assessing listening and attention; receptive language; expressive language and social communication at key stages in a child's development.

The Hanen programme is designed to support parents with children at risk of delay or disability by training SaLTs, teachers and parents to engage with the child according to tenets of good SLC practice. Elklan is a 10 week course for SaLTs and specialist teachers which enables them to deliver Elklan training in their workplace.

In the research sample, ECaT is the most commonly used programme with twelve of the fourteen centres involved and one on the waiting list for ECaT.

LA perceptions

Two of the three LAs interviewed used ET as a basis for entry to the ECaT programme, which they perceived as more challenging, more in-depth, and more long-term than ET. One LA also used ET accreditation as an entry-level criterion for some specialist CPD for practitioners. The third LA offered ECaT in parallel with ET. There were serious concerns among the LA interviewees about the termination of the ECaT programme in March 2011. This may have implications for SLC practice in general and ET in particular, for example, in LA1 where they used ECaT consultants as ET mentors and accreditors. In LA3, the strategy post-ECaT was to "embed all initiatives into a universal approach and develop a whole communication strategy based on them", using good settings to spread good practice. However, as they used ECaT to monitor children just below referral level, there is a danger of such children not being identified if the use of ECaT monitoring processes declines.

Overall, the LAs perceived ET as a useful CPD tool. One felt that ET is a faster process than ECaT, with less paperwork. This LA also required all ECaT settings to have one member of staff trained in the Elklan programme. In LA1, some SaLTs used the Hanen approach but with specialist groups of parents but they noted the time commitment needed to train with Hanen. In LA2, again, some SaLTS with Hanen training worked with groups of parents, whereas in LA3, Elklan training was available for SaLTs and specialist teachers.

The funding which accompanied ECaT was seen as a bonus by the LAs. For example, LA1 had made a strategic decision to use some of this funding to support the development of ET as an entry programme for ECaT. Many of the consultants for speech, language and communication programmes appeared to work across the programmes as mentors and accreditors for ET, consultant or lead practitioners for ECaT, and much staff development in all three LAs was jointly attended by ET and ECaT delegates from settings. As noted earlier, LAs highlighted gaps in the mentor training for ET, and also felt that ECaT and a quality assurance programme were needed to support the mentor training. The ECaT child monitoring tools were considered to be useful and one interviewee felt that they supported the monitoring of children who did not warrant referral to more formal SLT services, but who were nevertheless at risk.

From the LA perspective, ET generally appeared to "fit well" with ECaT, often and was often used as an entry point for ECaT, a perspective that did not seem to have not filtered down to all children's centres. When ECaT funding ends, some LAs stated that they would need to make strategic decisions about core funding for I Can programmes.

Children's centre perceptions

While there was some confusion among three groups of focus group participants about the difference between ET and ECaT, managers and ET leads made clear distinctions. There was little doubt that in the centres, ET and ECaT were seen as complementary. We found that in eight centres, ECaT resources were perceived as a prime and very useful means to monitor children's progress in SLC; in one (Stage 2) setting, for example, all 2-4 year-old children had been assessed. This was intended to provide valuable data about the outcomes of the ECaT programme and enable staff to plan individually for children and the centre. In contrast, identifying specific child outcomes from ET is difficult since baseline child assessment is not part of the programme.

In addition, we noted that three centres (one Stage 1 and two Stage 3) used ECaT resourcing to support the extension of the classroom outdoors. This is perhaps an area which ET could consider further. However, the greatest number of comments about ECaT and ET related to their sustainability.

Sustainability of ET and ECaT

Sustainability can be adversely affected by competing priorities, particularly when the initial funding and resourcing has ceased. However, only one of the LAs interviewed was developing a strategy to implement post-ECaT, whereas some children's centres were planning to train for more advanced accreditation with ET after March 2011. In children's centres, however, ECaT was perceived to be more supportive than ET, with mentors frequently visiting centres and cluster meetings. One centre described ECaT as "very much about 'OK. Where are you at? Where do you want to go? And how can we support you?"'. Seven centres stated that they felt that ECaT and ET were complementary.

The complementarity of the ET and ECaT programmes appeared to support their sustainability. LAs shared training for SLC for both programmes, ECaT consultants were part of the I Can training and accreditation teams, and network and cluster meetings were open to participants in both programmes. Centres felt that ECaT supported good SLC practice post-ET accreditation, "keeping up the momentum" and "sustaining the work of ET". This may be because I Can mentors are advised to terminate the mentoring relationship at accreditation (I Can 2008b), whereas ECaT mentoring frequently takes place over a longer period of time. Sustainability is supported by the availability of a group of professional colleagues on whom staff can draw for knowledge, skills, and opportunities to learn together with the development of teacher-leaders who provide support over time and take responsibility for CPD (Coburn 2003). Further development of a core of skilled professionals would also moderate the high staff turnover rate experienced by some centres.

As noted elsewhere this report (section 4.5), ET mentoring training is an issue for LAs and the mentoring had some apparent shortcomings in relation to the children's centres and to the development of centre CPD. ECaT mentoring, although frequently involving the same professionals as ET, appeared to fill some of the perceived gaps in ET mentoring and CPD. As LAs 1 and 2 noted, ECaT mentoring "came just at the right time to support Early Talk".

ECaT makes specific referral to co-coaching as a feature of the programme, while ET refers to mentoring. While there is much common ground between these concepts, we suggest that the ET would benefit from further clarification and development of its mentoring roles. Mentors are experienced colleagues, who, in addition to their appropriate knowledge, should also have appropriate knowledge of the needs and context of the workplace. Specialist coaches, usually identified by the professional learner, enable the learner to take control of their learning, whereas co-coaching partners support each other and may draw on specialist input to support their own coaching (DfES, 2005). We raise questions about variations in how the ET mentoring role has been perceived and understood by I Can, LAs and children's centres.

Although I Can provides ET mentor training, all the children's centres researched used LA mentors, some of whom were SaLTS, others were drawn from education services. Thus, the first question we ask of I Can is:

  • Is the mentoring training for ET appropriate for SaLTs and for EY professionals in terms of adult learning strategies, depth of specialist knowledge required, and understanding of the context of the workplace?

Secondly, we ask three questions of LAs and local communities using ET:

  • Post-ECaT, how will ET mentoring be supported and how will the ET programme be supported to remain sustainable?
  • Could co-coaching be extended from ECaT to support the ET programme in and across settings?
  • Funding restraints will require LAs and settings to become more innovative; could the current ECaT co-coaching be developed to support all SLC within centres across the LA?

On the ground, it is clear that the centres participating in this research had differing understandings of the concept of mentoring, its purpose and role. We suggest that this could be clarified and used more appropriately to sustain ET. Moreover, as noted earlier, peer support is an under-used strategy for centre CPD. A more efficient use of co-coaching for SLC could make this a sustainable resource. Centres underplayed the importance of planned structured discussion groups as a form of CPD: the development of this would be likely to enhance the sustainability of ET. Furthermore, the ECaT model of requiring centres to "support a linked setting to develop their language provision and practice" (DCSF 2008c: 4) ensures that good practice is developed, owned, and extended by centres. It is therefore suggested that ET could develop this model and that visits to other ET accredited settings would be useful.

Access to expertise "can be a statistically significant predictor of innovation use" (Coburn and Russell 2008: 207) and we suggest that this could be further developed for ET. Furthermore, Coburn and Russell (2008) argue that the design of the coaching (including selection criteria, work roles and the focus of professional development) is a key strategy to create the conditions for deeper and more substantive improvement.