Early years funding priorities

Early years education and childcare is part of our education funding domain.

We look to fund projects around five themes:

  • Educational attainment and child development outcomes
  • Tackling social disadvantage
  • Parental and family context
  • Wider societal impacts
  • Public policy mechanisms for early years

We will consider four different types of project:

  • Reviews and synthesis
  • Data collection and analysis
  • Pre-trial development work, controlled trials and evaluations
  • Research translation


Educational attainment and child development outcomes

How are process and structural aspects of quality in early years education and childcare related to short- and longer-term outcomes? How do these vary by age or other factors?

We are especially keen to encourage rigorous trials or pre-trials for intervention projects focusing on both cognitive and developmental factors, including language, literacy, numeracy, self-control, emotional development, social and relationship skills, physical activity and movement, and the relationships between these.

Special attention needs to be given to interventions and approaches that are appropriate for under-threes. In addition, we have a particular interest in interventions which identify and support children facing different types of disadvantage.

Tackling social disadvantage

In line with the Foundation’s wider concerns, we are interested in understanding the extent to which variations in starting point at school entry are underpinned by structural differences such as poverty and family structure. Could one reason why it seems difficult to reduce socio-economic gradients amongst children be that the households they are born into are becoming more unequal in their material and non-material resources? And if so, what are the implications for the role that early years provision might play?

We want to know more about the issues relating to the availability of early years places, how they are filled and by whom.

What are the characteristics of different types of provision and how do these relate to outcomes? Relevant issues include intake composition, parental choice, admissions policies, and planning for places.

Why is take-up lower among some groups of children who might be considered disadvantaged or at risk in terms of their cognitive, communicative, or language skills, or their social or behavioural development? How can their needs best be met in early years settings, and in particular what can be learned from those settings which already cater effectively for disadvantaged children with either mixed or targeted intakes?

Does the socio-economic or other mix of intake in early years settings affect delivery and outcomes, and if so how? And how relevant is the type of setting – do integrated settings such as children’s centres better meet the needs of some groups compared to other childcare settings?

Given the apparent potential for gains to be lost if interventions are not sustained, we also need to understand much better the challenges surrounding transition from early years to formal schooling – both the institutional transition from one setting to another and the curricular transition from the reception year to Key Stage 1.

Parental and family context

We are interested in the potential effects of early years education and childcare on the parental and family context in its own right, as well as its potential to improve children’s outcomes. What is the scope for provision to improve outcomes for children and families simultaneously, by offering training, education and employment for the parents as well as education and childcare for the children?

In particular, we want to know more about the potential to better integrate early years education and childcare with home visiting and parenting programmes that may have an impact on the wider home learning environment. We will be encouraging projects which explore the role of parents and informal carers in enhancing and extending the work of formal settings, with potential benefits for improving the home environment.

We are also keen to develop a more dynamic understanding of the factors which may be causally related to parental behavioural responses, for example parental labour market decisions, and take-up and choice of different kinds of early years education and childcare.

Wider societal impacts

What are the costs and benefits of early years provision and how are these distributed across different sections of society? This includes employers and other beneficiaries as well as families with children under five.

Public policy mechanisms for early years

Markets and delivery mechanisms
How does the private and voluntary sector operate and what drives its costs? How responsive is it to changes in unmet demand and funding streams, and how is quality delivered within it? How could we improve quality in all settings, while maintaining the flexibility in hours of the private and voluntary sector?

We are also keen to develop and test models for improving the continuity between early years and Key Stage 1. And we want to know more about issues relating to the scaling up or rolling out of interventions and other programmes in a highly fragmented sector.

Funding and regulation
We want to understand the balance between supply- and demand-side funding, and produce evidence for the effects of different funding strategies on outcomes. How can funding mechanisms be better tailored to ensure high quality provision? How are funding streams allocated at local and national level, and what are the most effective ways of using targeted funding such as the Early Years Pupil Premium?

We are also interested in how regulatory mechanisms can better assess process as well as structural quality and support improvements in both. What is the scope to use funding mechanisms to better incentivise providers to improve outcomes, tackle disadvantage, and meet wider family needs?

Staffing models
We want to know more about the apparent link between graduates and quality, with a view to identifying how graduates might best be deployed. We also want to consider how best to deploy non-graduate staff and how best to develop their skills.

We need more evidence on the role of continuous professional development across all skill levels and we are interested in the potential for improved coordination with staff in primary schools. The wider context of reward, recognition and progression for early years professionals is also worthy of further exploration.

Types of project

We recognise the need for a range of project types to tackle our priority themes and questions, and we welcome the contribution of different disciplines. Our emphasis is on empirical work, particularly:

  • The use of large datasets to understand state of play at the population level and the factors that may be associated with or causally related to outcomes of interest.
  • Development work to turn basic science into deliverable and testable interventions.
  • Controlled trials to establish whether those interventions can be effective and can be scaled up.

The types of research we think will make a valuable contribution to addressing our research priorities are set out below.

1. Reviews and synthesis, including formal meta-analysis as well as other systematic and narrative reviews of empirical research. Projects may also include policy reviews and international comparisons, both of which may be complemented by stakeholder interviews or case studies.

2. Data collection and analysis designed to help us understand more about the state of play, what it is achieving in terms of outcomes and what factors seem most important in yielding positive outcomes. This work is likely to involve a combination of purely descriptive work and more explanatory analysis that aims to identify factors which are causally related to those outcomes, and the mechanisms at play. Examples of descriptive work could include:

  • the studies of prevalence (e.g. take-up by disadvantaged groups, the deployment of staff with different qualifications);
  • exploration of processes (e.g. how budgets are used, such as how schools allocate their Early Years Pupil Premium funds) or
  • analyses of outcomes (how do different social groups fare on the Foundation Stage Profile).

Such studies are likely to involve secondary analysis of existing administrative and survey data, but given significant gaps in such data for the early years sector, primary data collection may also be justified.

3. Pre-trial development work, controlled trials and evaluationsWe are calling for proposals on the development and early evaluation of early years interventions that seek to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children. The call is part of a new strategic partnership with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) that will deliver an end-to-end approach to building evidence in early years interventions, from development and early evaluation, through to large randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and scale-up of successful approaches. For full details on this kind of project, please read the funding criteria.

4. Research translation. We are conscious that the early years sector has relatively limited capacity for developing, testing and adopting evidence based programmes and a fairly limited data infrastructure on how the system operates and the outcomes it achieves. We are therefore interested in projects which explore whether and how these capacity constraints might be addressed.

Explore early years projects

1 of 4


Education | 2020 – 2022

Can maths apps add value to learning?

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In progress

Education | 2020 – 2022

The effects of COVID-19 on families’ time-use and child development

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Early years worker sitting at table with children
In progress

Education | 2020 – 2021

The ‘common elements’ approach: improving outcomes in early childhood education

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Two young girls being taught fractions and decimals, learning from a school workbook together
In progress

Education | 2020 – 2021

Teaching fractions and decimals to children aged 3 to 11

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man reading picture book to baby
In progress

Education | 2019 – 2022

Do infants learn new words from educational picture books?

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In progress

Education | 2019 – 2022

The SWAN game-based approach to learning foundational number language

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In progress

Education | 2019 – 2021

Family Nurse Partnership: what works in England and Germany

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In progress

Education | 2019 – 2020

A systematic review of early years degrees and employment pathways

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Two young schoolchildren develop their early years oracy and literacy through reading a book
In progress

Education | 2019 – 2021

Book language: promoting early years oracy and literacy

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In progress

Education | 2019 – 2020

Empowering staff to enhance oral language in the early years

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In progress

Education | Welfare | 2019 – 2020

Private sector childcare in England

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In progress

Education | 2019 – 2021

Development & evaluation of a preschool language programme

View project


COVID-19 response

Nuffield-funded social scientists are conducting COVID-19 research in real-time, to capture people’s experiences of the social, cultural and economic impacts of the pandemic.