Julian Grenier looks at staff professional development around fostering effective early learning

Julian Grenier, Head Teacher Sheringham Nursery School

"Roughly half the personal development staff take part in, doesn’t help them to develop their practice. It’s a waste of time and money. This matters, because the early years are crucial years for making a difference to children’s life chances."

Julian Grenier, Head Teacher Sheringham Nursery School

One of the most significant changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage in last year’s revision was the increased focus on the professionalism of the workforce.

Going along with this, the revised guidance from the Department for Education sets out ‘Seven keys features of effective practice’. This section of Development Matters is a thumbnail sketch of the essential knowledge which all staff in the early years need.

However, when we look at what some early years practitioners say about their experience of professional development in the 2021 – 22 implementation year, we can see clear challenges.

The online early years platform Tapestry surveyed members about their opinions. It is important to note that the 314 people who answered are a self-selecting group. We don’t know how representative their views are. There are 328,500 early years staff in England, so this is also a pretty small sample.

But what they say is certainly thought-provoking.

  • 89% said that their settings or school provides professional development (PD) for the whole staff.  (Whilst that is a big majority, it still suggests that one in ten do not. As all maintained schools must provide 5 days for staff in-service training (INSET) per year, it is likely to be private, voluntary and independent (PVI) nurseries who are not offering any whole-staff PD)

This certainly chimes with our local experience. Many small nurseries struggle to afford closing for a whole day, losing all their fee-income from parents whilst still having to pay staff and all their other costs.

Of course, there is an important distinction between receiving professional development, and finding it useful.

The survey reports that:

  • 41% of primary teachers and early years educators said PD had impacted their practice ‘a lot’
  • 49% said that PD accessed in the past year had only a ‘little impact’.

Put bluntly, it sounds like roughly half the PD staff take part in doesn’t help them to develop their practice. It’s a waste of time and money. This matters, because the early years are crucial years for making a difference to children’s life chances. Many disadvantaged young children are in PVI nursery settings which may be unable to afford high-quality professional development.



The Education Endowment Foundation’s guidance report on Professional Development gives clear, actionable messages about how we can ensure that professional development is impactful.  

At East London Research School, our year-round programme called Newham Communication Project acted on those findings. A key part of the project was the use of high-quality video clips to show effective practice, and to enable discussion and reflection.

For example, ‘Heidi looks at book about thunder’ shows a practitioner using a book as a focus for conversation. The clip shows numerous examples of effective practice, including a focus on language ‘beyond the here and now’, which is a powerful way to support children’s thinking and learning. The practitioner’s use of ‘dialogic reading’, where the book is used as a focus for conversation, is especially powerful and a much richer context for developing language that just listening to a story being read out loud. As the child and practitioner share the book, there is lots of discussion, new vocabulary, and thinking about feelings. These approaches, and the evidence behind them, are explored more thoroughly in the Education Endowment Foundation’s Preparing for Literacy guidance report. 

When we use high-quality video to model an aspect of pedagogy in professional development, it can really ‘come alive’ for staff. Once you have seen it in action, you can try it out for yourself. Leaders and managers can model the new practice, and can sensitively observe staff trying it out and offer clear feedback about what they are doing well, and where they might need to continue their development.  

The focus on high-quality, sustained and effective professional development is important. For example, the FEEL Study shows how it can have a significant impact on the quality of the provision and on children’s outcomes.  

The research was conducted over a 7 month period, of which 3.5 months included delivery of the professional development. Even in this short timescale, the study found: 

  • Language development as measured by verbal comprehension showed twice the growth (102%) in the intervention relative to the control group, while expressive vocabulary showed essentially no difference between the groups. 
  • Numeracy development improved in the intervention group, as shown by two separate measures. For number concepts, there was 23% more growth in the intervention relative to the control group; and, for early numeracy, the added improvement was 28%. 
  • Children in the intervention group showed a reduction in internalising problems (peer and emotional problems) relative to the control group. Other aspects of socio-emotional development showed no significant difference between the groups.  

We are beginning to know a great deal about what should be included in professional development for early years professionals, and how PD should be designed and put into practice.  

We know the way … but it’s going to be a long journey for all of us in early years. 


Julian is the headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Newham, East London and Director of East London Research School. He was awarded a CBE for services to early years education in 2022. He is also an experienced public speaker and best-selling author.


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