The appliance of science

By Fionnuala O'Reilly and Dave Wilson | 06 April 2022

Early years education has been shown to help children get a better start in life, with a positive impact on both short- and long-term outcomes.

Research shows that early years education helps to improve children’s cognitive and social development, with a bigger impact on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is evidence that early childhood education has a longer-term impact throughout people’s lives, including on exam performance and job prospects.

However, families from disadvantaged backgrounds remain less likely to use childcare services even when they are entitled to free provision. Take-up is also lower among children from some minoritised ethnic backgrounds and children with English as an additional language.

Across the country, there is wide variation in the uptake of specific support for disadvantaged children such as funded places for twoyear-olds. According to the Nuffield Foundation, nearly a third of eligible children miss out on the free childcare available. This inequality can have a profound impact on disadvantaged children, who start school less well-equipped than their more affluent peers.

Every community faces their own challenges, and there are many reasons why parents might not take up the offer of free childcare. For example, the availability, hours or locations of local nurseries might not always be suitable for every family. There may also be families who aren’t aware this offer is available, or who find the application process too complicated or time consuming.

At Nesta and the behavioural insights team, we have developed a toolkit to help local authorities run projects informed by behavioural science to increase parents’ engagement with childcare services. Behavioural science encompasses lessons on human behaviour and decision-making from psychology, economics and anthropology. The toolkit covers key principles from the field and how they can be applied to increase engagement with children’s services. This includes the offer letter sent to eligible families to encourage them to use 15 hours of free childcare for two-year-old children.

There is a developing body of evidence that behavioural science can help to increase the number of parents making use of available services. In 2017, we ran a trial with a local authority in the South East aimed at improving the uptake of early years services. This involved trialling changes to the letter sent to eligible families inviting them to apply for free childcare. The new letter included a checklist of items that families would need to complete the application, and we found that it increased applications by 10%. We are now testing a similar letter in a much larger, geographically diverse sample in the North of England and expect to see results in the summer.

Behavioural science techniques have also been effective in other areas of education. For example, we worked with HegartyMaths, an EdTech platform widely used by schools. A feature of the platform called MemRi was designed to help students practise familiar content to keep it fresh in their memories. Originally, the MemRi feature had to be turned on manually by teachers and was not widely-used. Working with the BIT, HegartyMaths tested the effect of switching the default so that all users of the platform would get the MemRi feature automatically. A week after the change was introduced, the number of students with a MemRi goal increased by 43% as did the number of students completing quizzes on the platform.

Our new toolkit is aimed at local authorities looking to increase engagement with early years services, and the principles could also be applied more broadly. It includes a step by step guide on how local authorities can run their own randomised controlled trials to test and robustly evaluate new initiatives. The aim is that local authorities can use the toolkit to run their own trials from start to finish, informed by both behavioural science and their own invaluable local knowledge and insights.

By blending the expertise and community focus of local authority staff with behavioural science approaches developed by our team, we hope this toolkit will help to improve access to services for disadvantaged families across the country. We want to empower local authorities to run their own high-quality, ethical trials to develop and test new ways to increase their engagement with the families who need it most.

Fionnuala O’Reilly is a senior advisor and Dave Wilson is an advisor in Nesta’s behavioural insights team


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