EEF publishes independent evaluation of government-funded early years covid recovery programme




Almost 11,000 schools – or two-thirds of state-funded schools in England with reception pupils – took part in a government-funded roll-out of a programme to support four- and five-year-olds who would benefit from additional support with their language skills, according to an independent evaluation published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) today.

The Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) was offered to state-funded primary schools across two school years (2020-21 and 2021-22). The EEF and Nuffield Foundation oversaw the roll-out of the first and second years of delivery respectively, with a team based at the University of Oxford and then at the university’s spinout organisation, OxEd and Assessment, managing the delivery of the programme. The roll-out was supported by Oxford University Press, who helped with supplying resources to schools.

Both years of activity were funded by the Department for Education as part of their wider COVID-recovery efforts. A team from RAND Europe was commissioned to conduct an independent evaluation of the scale-up, through surveys, interviews, focus groups and data analysis.

Developed by researchers at the Universities of Oxford, Sheffield and York, NELI trains teaching assistants or early years educators to deliver scripted individual and small-group language sessions to four- and five-year-olds identified as needing additional support over the course of 20 weeks.

Two independent evaluations of NELI are published today. A process evaluation of the national roll-out, conducted by RAND Europe, found that it was well managed and easy for schools to access. However, some schools were unable to deliver the programme as intended due to Covid-related disruptions. For example, some adapted the number of one-to-one sessions, while others continued delivery into Year 1.

Schools thought that taking part in NELI had been beneficial for their pupils’ oral language skills and confidence with using language. This was particularly true for schools who delivered the programme as intended. An impact evaluation of the national roll-out will be published later this year.

Last year, an EEF-funded study on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on four-and five-year olds found that it was their early literacy skills that had been most affected, with parents and schools perceiving that language and communication skills had been negatively impacted by their children’s experiences during the pandemic.

The NELI programme has been robustly tested through several trials, including two funded by the EEF. The most recent, involving 193 schools, found that children who received NELI made, on average, three months of additional progress in oral language skills compared to a similar group of children who did not receive NELI.

The EEF has published longer-term analysis from this independent evaluation of NELI today. The evaluators from RAND Europe found that many of the benefits of taking part in NELI remained when children were six or seven. They also found some evidence that taking part in NELI could be particularly beneficial for socio-economically disadvantaged pupils. In this follow-up project, the University of Oxford recruited schools to take part and supported them to complete the assessments.

Professor Becky Francis CBE, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:


“We know that parents and schools have been worried about the impact of the pandemic on children’s language skills. So, it is terrific that so many schools in England were able to take up the offer of the NELI programme, as part of the Department for Education’s recovery efforts.


“There’s robust evidence showing NELI to be effective in supporting children’s communication and language skills and today’s new findings suggest that the positive benefits for children are still seen later in primary school.


“Today’s reports give us a great example of how evidence can be successfully scaled and mobilised to address a real and pressing need. The success of the roll-out is also testament to the power of collaboration, with many different organisations contributing.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said:


“For two thirds of primary schools in England to take up an intervention programme is an extraordinary development.


“It took a pandemic to mobilise this, not least because of the effects of lockdowns and the closures of nurseries and schools on early language development. But, as the evidence shows, the NELI programme is important and effective for pupils’ language and communication skills.


“This roll-out will stand schools and the children they serve for years to come. The Nuffield Foundation is proud to have played an integral role in the programme’s success.’’