Early learning and child wellbeing research

Written by: Caroline Sharp | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) is piloting the OECD’s new study of early learning and wellbeing in England later this autumn term. Caroline Sharp explains what the study is about and what it will mean for schools

In July, the Department for Education (DfE) announced England’s participation in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study designed to investigate children’s early learning and wellbeing. The International Early Learning and Child Wellbeing Study (IELS) will focus on the development of five-year-olds in different countries. The NFER is leading the delivery of this work in England on behalf of the DfE and the OECD.

The period from birth to age five is a crucial stage in children’s development. During this period, children experience a rapid increase in their cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional and motor skills. After the age of five, the amount of effort it takes to learn new skills increases.

So, it is not surprising that what happens in the early years has a profound effect on children’s development and later life chances.

We already know a great deal about the influences on children’s early learning, thanks to a growing body of research in this area. This includes high-quality studies in England such as Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE), the Study of Early Education and Development (SEED) and the Millennium Cohort Study.

The IELS study will add to this knowledge base, as Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford (one of the main authors of the EPPE study) has said: “This study will give us valuable insight into how five-year-olds develop, which will be of huge benefit not just to professionals, but also to parents who want to know how best to support their children’s early home learning.”

Five benefits of this study

  • It will tell us more about the range of things children can do at age five and how their cognitive development, language and numeracy relate to social skills and other aspects of wellbeing.
  • It will identify the types of experiences that help young children to thrive, whether in an early years setting, at school or at home.
  • It will shed light on the relationship between disadvantage and early learning, as well as the influence of other characteristics of children and their families.
  • It will provide insights for parents/carers and practitioners into how to support children’s development in the early years.
  • It will inform and improve national policies in the early years, by providing powerful evidence to help target investment in early education to strengthen children’s access to positive learning experiences right from the beginning of their lives.

Domains of early learning

The new study takes a holistic approach to exploring how to support a child’s cognitive, social and emotional wellbeing through a combination of interactive stories and games for five-year-olds. It will investigate a range of outcomes, including children’s social and emotional wellbeing and self-regulation, as well as their emerging language and numeracy skills.

Research focus: The four early learning domains to be assessed in the International Early Learning and Child Wellbeing Study as described in the OECD’s Early Learning Matters project brochure: http://bit.ly/2wUalqd


Some of the information will be collected from parents and teachers, and some in one-to-one sessions with children. Parents will be asked to complete a questionnaire about their child’s characteristics, behaviour and the home learning environment.

Teachers will be asked to complete a questionnaire about their own professional background and to provide their assessment of each child’s development, based on their observations.

Children will be invited to take part in fun tablet-based games and stories, which do not require them to read or write. Study administrators will be fully trained in working with this age group in order to help children to use the tablets and two animated characters (Tom and Mia) will help guide children through the activities.

I realise that the idea of assessing young children may raise some concern but I was reassured when I saw the activities, which are designed to be enjoyable and engaging to five-year-olds.

If children do not want to take part, the study administrators will ensure that they are not pressured to do so, or to continue if they want to stop. However, the feedback from early trials has shown that children enjoy the activities and are even disappointed when their session comes to an end.

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, said: “If anything, this study is designed to counter the increasing schoolification that we see in early childhood education.”

What will it tell us that we don’t already know?

The results of this study will enable us to identify whether children’s cognitive and emotional skills appear to be related, or are distinct from each other. It will also establish the relationship between children’s abilities at age five – taking account of their month of birth – and their previous experiences at home, at school, and in early years settings.

England has a distinctive early years education and care system, featuring a wide range of providers and an early start in school. This study will compare the outcomes of children in England with children in other countries who have had very different learning experiences up to the age of five. The study will build the evidence-base for future decision-making about support and provision.

The findings will be shared with professionals and parents/carers to inform their interactions. Participating schools will be invited to attend a conference to hear about the findings and discuss the implications for practice.

What will the study mean for the schools?

The schools that take part will be contributing to the development of this new study and adding to the evidence on what supports children’s early learning and development.

Each school in the sample will represent other schools which have similar characteristics, for instance other schools in England with a similar proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals. It is very important that all selected schools participate and we will do everything we can to support schools, teachers and parents to take part. We really appreciate headteachers’ support for the study and we are working hard to make participation as straight-forward as possible. We will also compensate schools for the staff time involved.

Once a school agrees, the NFER will select a random sample of 15 five-year-olds. Our study administrators will visit each school to complete the one-to-one activities with children. Each of the four activities will take 15 to 20 minutes, and each child will take part over a period of two days. The children’s teachers and parents will be invited to complete a questionnaire providing information about themselves and the children.

Study timeline

  • September 2017: The 30 schools selected to participate in the IELS field trial have been contacted by NFER.
  • October – December 2017: Children, parents/carers and schools take part in the field trial. The questions and activities which work best are taken forward to the main study.
  • October – November 2018: Children, parents/carers and schools take part in the main study. This will involve at least 3,000 children and parents/carers in 200 schools.
  • Spring 2019 – spring 2020: The international research team analyses the responses from participating countries.
  • Spring 2020: National and international reports will be published. 


  • Caroline Sharp is an experienced research director with a strong track record in early childhood education, including studies on: the influence of season of birth on educational outcomes; transition to key stage 1; children’s centre leadership; and targeting children’s centre services to help the most needy families. Her recent work has also focused on school improvement and workforce issues. NFER has extensive experience in carrying out international comparison surveys such as PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS.

Further information

For further information about this study, visit www.nfer.ac.uk/iels or www.oecd.org/edu/school/international-early-learni...

NFER Research Insights

This article was published as part of Headteacher Update’s NFER Research Insights series. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles can be downloaded from the supplements page of this website: www.headteacher-update.com/supplements/


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