Most schools didn’t complete £17m early language catch-up scheme

Ministers announced in 2021 that every primary school would be offered support through the scheme

Ministers announced in 2021 that every primary school would be offered support through the scheme

More than half of schools did not complete a government catch-up programme for reception children

A “large proportion” of pupils on a flagship government early language catch-up programme did not complete the scheme as intended, an evaluation has found.

Fewer than one in ten schools reported completing the full 20-week Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) course in its first year, and less than half said they completed it in year two.

Ministers announced in 2021 that every primary school would be offered support through the scheme.

Backed by £17 million of government funding, it was launched to raise outcomes in early language, communication and speech skills following pandemic disruption.

Almost 11,000 schools were recruited to the scheme over the two years, and four in five teachers reported an increase in pupils’ confidence in their use of language.

Covid disruption contributed to problems

But an evaluation of years one and two of the programme by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) suggests most schools did not finish.

Of staff surveyed at the end of the 2021-22 academic year, 49 per cent reported their school had completed the full 20 weeks of the programme. In its first year, just six per cent of schools reported completing NELI.

Independent evaluators found barriers to completing the first cycle of the programme had been “largely a result of Covid-related disruption” including school closures, as well as staff and pupil absences.

This continued into the second year, with 50 per cent of surveyed staff in June 2022 citing ongoing Covid disruptions as a leading cause.

But 52 per cent also blamed limited staff capacity, and 33 per cent competing priorities in the school, such as delivering other ongoing programmes.

Delivery not as intended

Under the scheme, children were meant to get two lots of 15 minute individual sessions and three lots of 30 minute group sessions a week delivered by trained teaching assistants or teachers.

But figures suggest schools struggled to deliver this. In the first year, surveys completed by school staff suggested 65 per cent of schools followed the programme plan.

In year two, schools were seen to be prioritising group sessions over individual sessions, “which were perceived as more resource-intensive to deliver”.

Just 30 per cent of respondents to a 2022 survey said they always delivered the two individual sessions.

Funding was available for more schools

Across the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years, 10,964 – or two-thirds of primary schools – were recruited to the programme.

The number was hailed as an “extraordinary development” by Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation, which oversaw the rollout alongside the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

Funding of £9 million was made available for up to 7,000 schools in the first year, with 6,667 joining.

An original cap of 4,000 was increased due to “higher than expected” demand from schools.

In its second year, there was £8 million available, but just 4,297 schools signed up. No government target was set that year.

Survey responses from schools that did not sign up show concerns including finding sufficient space in schools to deliver the sessions, conflicts with other language interventions and a lack of staff time and capacity.

Four in five teachers saw benefits

Despite barriers to the rollout, those who participated in the programme acknowledged its benefits.

At the end of the first year, 83 per cent of teachers and teaching assistants surveyed said they observed an increase in pupils’ confidence in their use of language. k

The comparative figure for the following year was 79 per cent.

Prof Becky Francis, chief executive of the EEF, said it was “terrific” that so many schools had taken up the offer.

Today’s reports give us a great example of how evidence can be successfully scaled and mobilised to address a real and pressing need,” she added.

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