Effective Pre-School Provision in Northern Ireland (EPPNI)

Author(s): E. Melhuish, L. Quinn, K. Hanna, K. Sylva, P. Sammons, I. Siraj-Blatchford and B. Taggart (report)/Department of Education (briefing)
Commissioned by: Department of Education, Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and Social Steering Group
Document Type: DENI Research Report 41/Research Briefing RB 3/2006
Year: 2006
Publisher: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency
Place of Publication: Belfast
ISBN: 1 897592 97 3 (report)/1366-803X (briefing)
Subject Area(s): Education, Early Years, Child Care, Pre-School, Home Based, Childminders, Nursery, Family Life
Client Group(s) : Age 0-8 years

Abbreviations: EPPNI - Effective Pre-School Provision in Northern Ireland, HLE - Home Learning Environment

Background to the Research

  • Funded by the Department of Education, Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and Social Steering Group, the EPPNI is a longitudinal study, with data drawn from the following sources:
    • Child social/behavioural profiles completed by pre-school and primary staff;
    • Parental interviews;
    • Interviews with pre-school centre staff;
    • Quality rating scales from observation and interviews;
    • Case studies.
  • The EPPNI project investigated the effects of pre-school education and care on children's development (3-8 years old). Additionally, there were three intensive case studies of pre-school settings. This research report summarises the empirical work published in thirteen Technical Papers.

Research Approach

  • A wide range of information was collected on over 800 children, studied longitudinally, from the age of 3-4 and then annually until the end of Key Stage 1. Data were collected on developmental profiles, background characteristics related to their parents, the child's HLE, and the pre-school settings children attended. Eighty pre-school settings were drawn from a range of providers and a sample of 'home children' was recruited at entry to school for comparison with the pre-school group. The 'value added' by pre-school was examined.

Main Findings

Key findings over the pre-school period

  • Pre-school experience enhances cognitive and social development in all children. Full-time attendance had no benefits over part-time provision for cognitive development at the start of primary school.
  • Disadvantaged children benefit even more where they are with a mixture of children from different social backgrounds.
  • There are significant differences between pre-school settings and their impact on children. Nursery schools/classes have the overall best outcomes, with good outcomes also for playgroups. Other types of pre-school produce benefits, but to a lesser extent.
  • High quality pre-schooling is related to better intellectual and social/behavioural development for children. Observed quality was higher in nursery schools and classes; and staff training and qualifications were associated with better quality of provision.
  • For all children, the quality of the HLE was more important for intellectual and social development than parental occupation, education or income. What parents do is more important than who parents are.

Key findings at the end of Key Stage 1

  • Advantageous effects of pre-school were evident throughout Key Stage 1, with some reduction in strength for some outcomes compared to school entry.
  • Type of pre-school was related to longer term effects, with effects most strong for nursery schools and classes, followed closely by playgroups, while other types of pre-school had less long-lasting effects.
  • Pre-school quality was significantly related to children's development over the first four years of primary school.
  • A small group of children continued to be 'at risk' of special educational needs, with more of the 'home' children falling into this group, even after taking into account background factors.

Summary of pre-school type impact

  • For cognitive outcomes, the children from nursery school/classes show the most benefit, followed by the children from playgroups, then those from private day nurseries and reception classes, with children from reception groups showing no overall cognitive benefits.
  • For social/behavioural outcomes, children from nursery school/classes and playgroups show equivalent benefit, with children from the other types of pre-school showing a smaller advantage over the home group.

The impact of the HLE and early childcare

  • Activities undertook by the parents, which were found to promote development, included reading with the child, teaching songs and nursery rhymes, painting and drawing and playing with letters and numbers. These activities were all associated with higher intellectual and social/behavioural scores and could be viewed as 'protective' factors in reducing special educational needs. The HLE was only moderately associated with parent's educational or occupational level and more strongly associated with children's intellectual and social development. What parents do with their children is therefore more important than who parents are.
  • High levels of 'group care' in the first three years were associated with slightly higher levels of anti-social behaviour for a small group of children when assessed at age 3.

Lessons from Case Studies

  • The case studies revealed that there is no 'level playing field' in terms of the training of staff, staff salaries and conditions of service, adult-child ratios, resources or accommodation. The three EPPNI case studies identified four areas that are important when working with children aged 3-5 years: management and staff; ethos and emotional climate of the settings; parental partnership; and pedagogy.


  • The EPPNI findings are supported by findings elsewhere, such as the linked project in England and also studies elsewhere.
  • High quality pre-school provision has been shown to have positive effects on children's intellectual and social behavioural development. Pre-school can play a part in combating social exclusion for disadvantaged children by promoting a better start to primary school, and has a positive impact over and above family influences.
  • The type of pre-school centre is important, with better outcomes associated with certain types of provision. The HLE is identified as a separate influence.
  • The benefits of pre-school education are clearly demonstrated for children in NI and nursery classes/school and playgroup provision should be expanded. This is further supported by the fact that a reduction in the risk of developing Special Educational Needs was found to be associated with good quality pre-school provision.

The report and briefing are available on the DENI website.

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