Children get profound, long-lasting benefits from their earliest exposure to teaching, from academic and non-cognitive development to better health and careers later in life. Research also shows that their teachers’ professional development is key, says Alison Peacock

Early years education is perhaps one of the most contentious areas of pedagogical practice. Of late it has been firmly in the spotlight, thanks to the focus on early years in the Education Committee’s Life Chances inquiry as well as the recent publication of the new Early Learning Goals.

And it absolutely should be in the spotlight. As a strong advocate of early education who has worked as the headteacher of a primary school with a nursery, I know that early years education can have a profound and lasting influence on a child.

Our youngest children deserve the very best teachers who are able to clearly articulate to their colleagues, families and external assessors the rationale for all aspects of their school practice. The benefits of play, talk, exploration of the natural environment, development of fine and gross motor skills, socialisation and developing relationships are all vital aspects of a young child’s learning.

So it is critical that policymakers, educators and wider society recognise the importance and impact of early years education– but what exactly is this impact? And how can schools ensure that early years education is as effective as possible? It’s worth reflecting on five key findings from research into early years education.

1. The home learning environment is the biggest influence – but high-quality early years education obviously helps
Of course early years education does not sit in isolation. We know that the quality of the home learning environment is a huge factor in a child’s future attainment, so it’s worth ensuring that programmes focus not just on children but on supporting their parents. Assessment of Sure Start centres, for example, found positive impacts from a range of parenting measures. High-quality early years education makes a difference to pupils’ future achievements, and it has particular benefits for children whose home learning environment is less strong.

2: High-quality early years education makes a difference for both cognitive and non-cognitive skills
The benefits of effective early years education can be seen in both a range of educational attainment measures and in vital non-cognitive skills such as self-regulation, social skills, perseverance and behaviour. These skills enable our children to collaborate, play together, move beyond the home environment to enjoy connecting with others, and engage confidently with new experiences.

3: The benefits of early years education extend far beyond the early years
Although early achievements in areas such as early language and literacy sometimes appear to “wash out” across a child’s time in school, they can be sustained when a child moves on to a high-quality primary setting. Strong communication, collaboration and high-quality provision across early years, primary and secondary is paramount. But even when educational attainment benefits do fade over time, the non-cognitive benefits appear to continue, and may even be the reason for the substantial long-term benefits that are seen where early years education is effective, for example in improved adult earnings.

4: Professional development for early years educators makes a difference
Unsurprisingly, the quality of teaching received is a critical factor in the effectiveness of early years programmes. Targeted, specialist professional development programmes for early years educators can help to develop their expertise to support both academic attainment, including maths and literacy, as well as the non-cognitive skills of the children they teach. As with teachers in other phases, mentoring and coaching can be particularly effective here. Early years educators, like all teachers, should have access to ongoing professional learning opportunities to develop their professional knowledge and skills.

5: Early years education provides a strong return on investment
Ensuring access to high-quality early education is worthwhile financially, too – in fact, for some programmes in the US, the benefits are estimated to be more than three times the cost of the programme. The sources of these cost benefits include improvements in health and reduction in crime, as well as gains in parental income during the programme and gains in participants’ own later-life income through both higher levels of employment and higher salaries.