Laura Barbour discusses how parents can make a difference. 

“What parents do with their children is more important than who parents are.” This message from the original Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) study report in 2003 is one of hope. As a parent, your occupation, education and family income matter less to your child’s intellectual and social development than what you actually do with your child. The EPPE project investigated the effects of background characteristics related to parents, the child’s home environment and the pre-school settings children attended, on 3,000 children from the ages of 3-7.

The study goes into detail about the kind of things that can help a child. These include:

  • reading to a child
  • teaching songs and nursery rhymes
  • painting and drawing
  • playing with letters and numbers,
  • visiting the library, teaching alphabet
  • teaching numbers
  • taking children on visits
  • creating regular opportunities for them to play with their friends at home

All these activities were associated with higher intellectual and social/behavioural scores for children at age 5, 6 and 7 regardless of parents’ qualifications. The gains are not just short-term either. The EPPSE longitudinal study found a stimulating home learning environment at age 3-4 years could still predict students’ academic outcomes at age 16.

So, whatever your background, following these strategies should equip your child with the best start in life. But the simple fact is that it’s not always easy to adhere to those suggestions. For many parents making the time for the simplest “learning activity” with your child can feel like an unachievable goal. Now imagine doing this faced with the daily constraints and stresses of poverty and disadvantage.

In 2010 the Sutton Trust commissioned a study using Millennium Cohort data. The headline figure was a depressing one. Children growing up in the poorest fifth of families were already nearly a year (11.1 months) behind those children from middle income families in vocabulary tests by the time they reached school age.

Further research found a 19 month gap between children from the lowest income and highest income families. We also found that the most beneficial types of parenting and home environment are less common in low income families than in middle and high income families. This accounted for half of the explained development gap between low and middle income children.  As an example, just under half (45%) of children from the poorest fifth of families were read to daily at age 3, compared with 8 in 10 (78%) of children from the richest fifth of families.

But once again parenting trumps background. Our report found good parenting and a supportive home environment are more important determinants of good test scores at age 5 than family income. The report shows that large numbers of the poorest children are read to every day, taken to places of interest, and given regular bed times. These examples of positive parenting within the lowest income families demonstrate that such behaviours are successfully adopted among vulnerable families. Clearly, if we can help more families in difficult circumstances to adopt this positive parenting it will have an impact on narrowing the attainment gap that materialises so early in life.

The Trust has long been committed to the concept of supporting parents as the primary educators in the pre-school years and we are now extending this into the early primary school years

There has been a great deal of activity in the third sector seeking to engage parents, but it tends to be very localised and isolated so that good practice is not necessarily being identified or shared.  To date very few UK programmes have a sound evaluation behind them – as a result the evidence about how to increase parental involvement to improve children’s outcomes is patchy and inconclusive.  We know that involving parents in their children’s learning is associated with improved attainment and educational participation, but little is known about which methods of engagement are the most effective, or why.

That’s why in partnership with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, today we’re launching a £1 million fund to support and evaluate parental engagement projects designed to bridge the attainment gap in the early and primary school years today. The fund will support the growth, increased effectiveness and measurement of impact of five projects, led by not- for- profit organisations, aimed at improving children’s cognitive development through parental engagement, for up to three years.

It will complement the work of our sister charity, the Education Endowment Foundation, by supporting organisations to develop evidence of their impact. We hope it will build good practice and contribute to an evidence base to enable more parents to engage in positive parenting, radically improving their children’s life chances regardless of background. Applications open today.

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