Toddlers put to the test

Emma Seith reports on the findings of a pilot programme which gave vulnerable young children a free nursery place a year earlier than usual

Vulnerable two-year-olds who took part in a Pounds 2 million pilot programme, which gave them a nursery place a year early, made no more progress than the children who failed to get a place, according to a report published today.

The researchers from Strathclyde University who carried out the evaluation of the two-year-long pilot project in Glasgow, Dundee and North Ayrshire found the children attending nursery had learnt "a range of new skills", particularly in the areas of language and social skills. But there was no significant difference between their progress and that of the children in the comparison group, most of whom were also eligible for the pilot, but had not been allocated a place.

Lisa Woolfson, the early years expert who headed the research, nevertheless argued the risk factors among the children who participated in the pilot, which included parental drug abuse and mental health problems, were difficult to match in the comparison group. Therefore, the fact that they managed to keep up with the comparison group may actually be "a highly positive result", she said.

"Although the children in the comparison group were waiting for places, so technically they could have been in the programme, it was the most vulnerable children who got places first," she said. "The group we were working with probably did have more severe risk factors."

The programme's positive impact on parents was clearer. Those whose children attended nursery early coped better than their counterparts outside the scheme with daily parenting situations and were better able to manage their children's behaviour because of new insights and a better understanding, the researchers found.

"The comparison group experienced greater parenting hassles as the intervention went on, which is as you might expect, given children start to get a bit stroppy as they approach three, hence the 'terrible twos'," said Dr Woolfson. "But in the intervention group, they experienced less hassle."

The parents in the pilot learned from a range of experiences, but mainly from observing their children in the programme and the way the staff interacted with them.

"Changing parents' behaviour towards their children and enhancing parenting capacity is a highly important outcome for impacting on children's development in the longer term," wrote the authors.

In July 2006, the then Scottish Executive launched 900 free nursery places for two-year-olds from the most needy families in three authorities. The pilot ran for two years, starting in August 2006, and was evaluated by researchers from Strathclyde University between August 2007 and June 2008.

The TESS revealed earlier this year that the SNP administration had decided to stop funding the scheme.

MAIN FINDINGS

Parents in the programme showed improved parenting capacity compared to those in the comparison group.

Children in the pilot showed improved developmental outcomes, but comparison group children also showed improved outcomes.

Staff gained new learning that would inform future practice with pre-schoolers.

Extending a programme to two-year-olds requires a bedding-in period for effective planning, preparation and staff training before it starts.

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