Research School Network: How can we help children with their early communication? Julian Grenier reflects on Manor Park Talks, a professional development programme for early years practitioners


How can we help children with their early communication?

Julian Grenier reflects on Manor Park Talks, a professional development programme for early years practitioners

by East London Research School
on the

In this blog, I’ll be reflecting on the first programme we ran with funding from the Education Endowment Foundation – Manor Park Talks. Two years on – what have we learnt by reflecting on our work? How can we put our thoughts into action and do things better?


As a headteacher working in the Manor Park area of Newham, East London, I have met hundreds of children with delayed communication. 

On home visits, it is common to see large families crammed into very small housing, often with three or four children in each bedroom. The high rate of child poverty, and the extreme stress on parents trying their best in very difficult circumstances, can combine to make the home environment less than optimal for children’s language development. 

Research suggests that in areas of social and economic disadvantage, between 40% and 56% of children start school with language delay [PDF].

We should do not lay responsibility for this problem at the feet of parents. We should see it as a sign that we need profound social change in England to reduce the high levels of child poverty. 

In the short-term, however, we can take some actions as early years educators to improve this situation for children and their families. 

For this reason, the school applied for funding from the Educational Endowment Foundation to develop and deliver a programme of professional development, for practitioners working across the neighbourhood. As a school leader, I acted on the following principles: 

take responsibility for all local children, not just the minority who attend Sheringham Nursery School

position myself and the team as learners, working alongside other local early years educators to improve our practice

use the best available evidence, to maximise the likelihood of success

contextualise the best evidence through professional dialogue with all the participants, drawing on their expertise

use evidence to inform, not dictate, our changing practices

In our programme design, our intention was to focus on promoting a short list of pedagogical strategies for adults to use when playing and interacting with the children. Our target population was children aged between 2 and 3 years old, accessing a free nursery place. The criteria for a free place is that the family is on a low income. Our two objectives were for practitioners to learn:

  1. more about how they could promote children’s language development in general
  2. specific strategies they could rehearse in training, and then use regularly with the children, so they became embedded and part of their everyday practice.
Language development 4 5 years

What happened next?

Much of Manor Park Talks went smoothly, but there were also some unexpected difficulties. The project team had designed a formative evaluation model. The independent evaluation team met regularly with the project team and the team from UCL Institute of Education, who wrote the evidence summary that underpinned the project. Two key findings from the first formative evaluation meeting were:

  1. Some of the practitioners were prioritising a focus on language interactions at the expense of supporting the children’s emotional wellbeing. As a result, the IOE team reviewed the evidence base to draw more attention to the importance of practitioners supporting children emotionally at the same time as encouraging communication. 
  2. Many practitioners found the list of strategies to implement too long. They could not recall them all in their daily practice. As a result, the list of strategies was replaced with a single, clearly-stated objective. The project was all about listening to children and having conversations with them’. Under this umbrella was a much shorter list of strategies. These were summarised on a poster, which practitioners helped to design.
MPT final

The independent evaluation found that: Practitioners reported that the revised version of Manor Park Talks focusing on specific conversational responsiveness techniques was easier to apply than the full set of strategies set out in the initial design. 

This pilot was funded by EEF to see whether the intervention was ready to be delivered across all nurseries in Newham. The evaluation concluded that the revised intervention could be implemented across all settings in Newham’.

East London Research School is now working with more than 50 PVI settings and nursery classes in schools across Newham on a revised and expanded programme called Newham Communication Project’. This new project is supported by the 7 maintained nursery schools in Newham, with each school creating a local hub for change, led by a trained mentor. We look forward to sharing the materials from this project, and our findings, during the months ahead.

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