Ministers will launch a public information campaign later this year urging parents to “Chat, Play and Read” with their children before they start school. This aims to ensure all children arrive at school with a good vocabulary and speech, language and communication skills sufficiently developed for them to be able to fully access the learning opportunities on offer.  It sounds like a great idea and of course the principle behind it is well intentioned, but it is unlikely that the wide and persistent gap on school entry between children eligible for free school meals and their better off peers can be addressed with such a simplistic solution.

Over 300,000 toddlers have never been read a nursery rhyme by their parents, a Government survey suggests. Eight per cent of children aged under five in England have never learnt songs, poems or nursery rhymes, according to a Department for Education (DfE) poll of 2,685 mothers and fathers. [1] Meanwhile, 12 per cent of youngsters in the same age group have never learnt numbers or how to count and 14 per cent - 574,928 children - have never learnt the alphabet or how to recognise words. 

There is a weight of evidence [2] that concludes that the greatest impact on children and young people’s learning arises from the things that parents/carers do with them at home, so it is not hard to understand that if you have someone behind you, encouraging and supporting you in something you will be at an advantage. The culture you are brought up in and the things that are valued in that culture usually has a profound and lasting influence on you.  It follows that the more engaged parents are in the education system the more likely their children are to succeed. Evidence from Charles Deforges’ longitudinal study demonstrates the importance of parents and carers in their child’s ability to learn, with up to 10 times the influence of teachers. [3]

So, is it just a lottery? If you happen to have supportive parents or carers who can give you time and encouragement you will do well and if you don’t, are you destined to underachieve? Clearly this cannot be acceptable, but the fact remains that many parents/ carers are not engaging with settings or schools and it is their children that are at risk of falling behind. Of course, not everyone can achieve at the same level, but we should believe that everyone with the right influence and support can achieve to the best of their ability.

Every teacher and practitioner knows how important it is for children to get support at home and many schools and settings already go to great lengths to encourage parents to get more involved and undertake simple activities to support their child at home, but they mostly report the same thing – some parents just don’t engage, so it cannot simply be about telling parents what to do, or giving them ideas through texts and apps.

Considering how vital it is and how it affects the long-term educational outcomes for children, isn’t it time we supported those involved in early years education in how to develop learning partnerships with all parents? After all, it is a golden opportunity when their child is young, for parents and carers to develop the skills and confidence to support their child throughout the whole of their education, helping them to achieve their full potential and almost every child attends some kind of early years setting.

For partnerships of this quality to happen in all schools and settings you need two things:  trained staff who are both confident and competent in developing parent / carer partnerships and parents and carers who understand their role and are confident and have the capacity to support their child.

The first involves investment in training and professional development, the second is undoubtedly a lot more complex.  The child poverty action group report that currently 30% of the UK’s children are living in poverty [4], this is a blight on family life and causes inertia. It is not simply that these parents and carers do not know or understand how or do not want to support their children, they simply may not have the energy or the mental capacity to do so. Many families are living in chaotic circumstances due to financial, social or health pressures and for them just getting through the day and feeding their children may be enough of a challenge.

It is easy to jump to quick off the peg solutions, such as recommending activities for parents and carers to undertake with their children or investing in resources such as apps that encourage learning songs or rhymes or giving out free books. These are great ideas, but it’s a bit like giving someone a new purse when they have no money, it simply doesn’t address the route of the problem and so will not solve it. There is already a wealth of resources out there to support parents and carers who are motivated to play with and support their child’s learning and development, so the problem is not so much about those who don’t do it, but about those who can’t.

Experience and instinct should tell us that these parents need less of being told what to do and more support to navigate the challenges they face daily. This can only happen where they have the opportunity to develop a close relationship based on mutual trust and respect with someone who can encourage them to get involved, as well as signposting them to what services and support is out there to meet their own needs. This links directly to point one. If all teachers and practitioners were trained in building parent / carer partnerships there would be a significant reduction in families that are perceived as ‘hard to reach’ or ‘reluctant to engage’ and an increase in parent / carer capacity to get more engaged and involved.

The Achievement for All pilot (2009-11) [5] clearly demonstrated how parental involvement can be significantly enhanced through the structured conversation, combined with a whole school approach and real determination to tackle the barriers and engage all parents/carers in an effective, inclusive relationship with the school.

“Face-to-face communication with parents/carers, treating them as equal partners with expertise in their children’s needs is crucial to establishing and sustaining confidence.” 

Brian Lamb (2009) [6]

It is for this reason that all Achievement for All’s programmes have a strong focus on developing learning partnerships with parents. The training given to teachers and practitioners helps them to build respectful and effective partnerships based on working together to meet the learning needs of their child. Using the evidence based structured conversation technique results in a joined-up approach between home and school and having a clear understanding of the challenges some parents face and the tools to be able to confidently engage with families from all walks of life, have led to the development of successful partnerships and improved children’s outcomes.

Parents / carers, like their children, are unique and each one brings to the school or setting their own individual strengths and needs and their own set of values, beliefs, attitudes, background and circumstances. Being aware of and understanding these factors give clues about how to get them engaged and taking the time to understand their context and cultural norms also provides a great starting point to getting them involved.  Having a clear understanding of the challenges some parents face and the tools to be able to confidently engage with families from all walks of life, has led to the development of successful partnerships and improved outcomes in all our Achieving Early Settings with 100% of practitioners reporting higher levels of confidence in working with parents and 100% of parents reporting that the early years structured conversations 'Taking Time for Talk' had been helpful in supporting their child's learning.

This partnership approach to working with parents is proven to have an impact on the home learning environment and makes the difference in improving outcomes for all children, particularly those who are vulnerable to disadvantage. Knowing the importance of working in partnership with parents and having training in how to do it well, is the key to better outcomes for children. Investing in the right training and support to develop this, is helping Achieving Early settings to close the gap and give all children a better start.

The two solutions of trained staff and confident parents and carers are actually interdependent and when they come together successfully this is when the great ideas and extra resources can be introduced into the family; only then will we be able to move towards a better home learning environment for all children.

“There are many courses and training programmes which boast how they support settings to engage with parents of vulnerable children, this course actually does”

Early Years Setting Manager – Coventry

“[The Achieving Early programme] helped me to support my child's learning. It's given me ideas of things to do at home.”

Parent

To find about the Achieving Early Programme, please visit: https://afaeducation.org/core-programmes/achieving-early/achieving-early/

References:

[1] Read more: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2019/04/08/300000-toddlers-have-never-read-nursery-rhyme-parents-study/

Also featured in TES:  https://www.tes.com/news/no-learning-home-100k-under-5s-dfe-research-finds

2 Goodall, J., and Vorhaus, J., with the help of Carpentieri, JD., Brooks, G., Akerman, R., and Harris, A.,2011  Review of Best Practice in Parental engagement Practitioners summary

3 Desforges C. with Abouchaar, A., (2003) The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievement and Adjustment: A Literature Review, DfES Research Report 433, 2003. Available at:webarchive. nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130403234550/ education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/RR433.pdf

4 Households Below Average Income, Statistics on the number and percentage of people living in low income households for financial years 1994/95 to 2016/17, Tables 4a and 4b. Department for Work and Pensions, 2018.

5 Humphrey, N., and Squires, G. (2011) Achievement for All  National Evaluation: Final Report, London: DfE   and in the text (Humphrey and Squires, 2011)

6 Lamb, B. (2009) Lamb Inquiry Special Educational Needs and Parental Confidence. Nottingham: DCSF (it is on p3) http://www.dyslexiaaction.org.uk/files/dyslexiaaction/the_lamb_inquiry.pdf