Evaluating the scale-up of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI)

Teacher reading a book to kindergarten students at a table, photo by New Africa/Adobe Images

Two thirds of state-funded primary schools in England signed up to deliver NELI. RAND Europe was commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation to evaluate the implementation of the programme across schools.

What is the issue?

The Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) is a language support programme designed to improve children’s vocabulary, listening and narrative skills. It is delivered by specially trained teaching assistants working with children in reception (4–5-year-olds) individually and in small groups. Previous evaluations, including an Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)-funded effectiveness trial conducted by RAND Europe, found that NELI had positive effects on language skills.

The strong evidence base for NELI prompted the Department for Education (DfE) in England to commit £9 million to make NELI available to state-funded schools with reception pupils for the 2020/21 academic year (the first year of the NELI scale-up). This was announced as part of the government’s £1bn COVID-19 'catch-up' package announced in June 2020. In February 2021 the DfE announced that it would invest an additional £8 million in the second year of the NELI scale up, with the aim of delivering NELI in more schools in the 2021/22 school year (the second year of the scale up). Across both academic years, around two thirds of state-funded primary schools in England took up the offer and signed up to deliver the NELI programme

How did we help?

RAND Europe was commissioned by the EEF to conduct a mixed methods process evaluation of the implementation of NELI at scale in both academic years (2020/21 and 2021/22) across schools in England using surveys, interviews and case studies.

What did we find?

  • A key theme across both academic years was the high level of interest and buy-in from schools about NELI. Overwhelmingly, schools talked about the NELI programme in positive terms and perceived it to have a positive impact on pupils’ language skills and confidence.
  • Another key theme undercutting the evaluation findings from both years was that practical constraints faced by schools, particularly lack of staff time and difficulty finding time during the working day for staff to prepare for and deliver NELI. These challenges were exacerbated by, but not solely attributable, to the COVID-19 pandemic, which increased pressure on schools and resulted in greater staff absence.
  • Linked to these challenges, across both academic years many schools who participated in the evaluation did not deliver the NELI programme in full or in accordance with the intended delivery model. Further research is needed to understand how the fidelity of NELI delivered at scale affects pupil outcomes.
  • Delivering NELI at speed at an enormous scale created challenges for delivery partners in terms of communication and logistics. Several changes and adaptations were introduced for the second year of the scale up in terms of the structure of the delivery team, recruitment, school registration and data management.

What can be done?

The evaluation reflected on lessons identified for NELI and similar educational programmes delivered at scale, including the need to:

  • Agree in advance the number of schools to be targeted/reached and the timeline for delivery.
  • Engage with a range of educational networks as part of recruitment and to start recruitment in the previous academic year.
  • Build in mechanisms to monitor delivery in schools and consider in advance how to respond to issues with fidelity.
  • Clearly communicate to schools the time commitment required to deliver educational programmes, including training for staff.
  • Streamline the implementation process as far as possible, ideally creating a single point of contact for schools.