There is a weight of evidence [i]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.
Improving early communication, language and literacy development is now a key priority for the government as some of the poorest children in the UK start school months behind their peers and the gap can grow through their school years. Children with poor vocabulary skills at age 5 may be up to twice as likely to be unemployed in their 30s.
In July 2018, the Secretary of State for Education announced the government’s ambition to halve in ten years the proportion of children who finish reception year without the communication, language and literacy skills they need to thrive. As a result, the Department for Education is launching [ii]Hungry Little Minds - a new three-year campaign to encourage parents to engage in activities that support their child’s early learning and help set them up for school and beyond.
It is hoped that Hungry Little Minds will encourage parents and carers to spend more time interacting with their children and aims to ensure they 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.
This initiative will be popular, as it’s smart and easy to access, but it is a simple solution to a complex problem so is worth remembering that it is part of a wider ranging campaign and needs a holistic approach to implementation. 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 going to be totally solved with new apps, but needs a more considered approach as to why some parents are not already interacting enough with their children. The answer lies in supporting parents to understand their value, and to support them to overcome any barriers they have in this respect. This requires an individual tailor-made solution for some families, which is a challenge, but there is one almost universal service that parents regularly access and that is the early years setting their child attends.
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 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[iii], 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.
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 award-winning early years programme - Achieving Early supports settings to develop positive learning partnerships with parents so that children can get the best possible start to their education. 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, has led to the development of successful partnerships and improved children’s outcomes. Supporting parents with ideas, such as the Hungry Minds resources, together with a real determination to tackle the barriers and engage all parents/carers in an effective, inclusive relationship with the setting is what is making the difference.
Achievement for All strongly endorses the Hungry Minds campaign as part of a wider initiative, and would welcome the opportunity to work in partnership with early years settings to develop positive relationships with all their parents and carers. 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 staff trained 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.
“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.”
If you would like more information about the Achieving Early programme and support with developing learning partnerships with parents in your setting please contact:
[i] 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
[ii] DfE-2019, Hungry Little Minds -https://www.gov.uk/government/news/society-wide-mission-to-boost-early-literacy-and-communication
[iii] 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.