Since 2011, Achievement for All (AfA) has engaged with over 300,000 families building on the premise that the greatest impact on children and young people’s learning arises from the activities they are involved in with their parents/carers. 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 over those who have limited or no support. The culture you are brought up in 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.[1]

So, is it just a socio economic or engagement 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 know how important it is for children to get support at home; yet everywhere I go I ask them if they have had any training in how to develop learning partnerships with parents and so far, I have never met anyone who has. 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 do this? After all it is a golden opportunity when their child is young, for parents/carers to develop the skills and confidence to support their child throughout the whole of their education, helping them to achieve their full potential.

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/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[2], 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 to 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/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 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)[3] clearly demonstrated how parental involvement can be significantly enhanced through 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)[4]

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 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

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[1]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

[2]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. 

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

[4]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