Supporting parents of three and four year olds to get involved in their learning through fun activities like fishing ducks out of the bath or counting star jumps has a positive impact on their home learning environment, according to the results of a small-scale randomised controlled trial carried out by the University of Oxford’s Department of Education and published by the Sutton Trust today.

The Engaging Parents Effectively project, led by the Manchester-based Parental Engagement Network, trained school staff to work more closely with parents and to support them in helping their children to learn. The project provided parents with fun activities and resources to support their child’s learning at home. These included finger puppets, tambourines and books.

Eighteen schools from Greater Manchester took part in the trial, which prioritised disadvantaged, pupil-premium eligible children. Researchers from Oxford University found that taking part in the intervention had a significant effect on the child’s home learning environment, measured by learning activities the parents reported they do at home with their children. Most schools also reported improvements they had observed in their pupils’ academic progress.

Parents at Newall Green Primary School said it helped them to understand their children better and told teachers how much they enjoyed the activities

Almost all the staff (94%) of the participating schools said they had gained confidence and skills in working with parents through the training and implementing the project. Schools have seen a longer term impact on the motivation and ability of staff to work with parents too.

Sarah Rudd, Headteacher at Newall Green Primary School said, “I have been very impressed by the uptake and the very positive outcomes from the project. This is exactly what we need – practical fun ways to engage parents in learning.”

Lorna Cumberbatch, teaching assistant at Claremont Primary School said,  “I’ve learnt about the importance of building relationships with parents and  how to make workshops with parents informal and fun.”

Experience from previous trials has shown that recruiting and retaining parents is often challenging, but the report notes that this project has been notably successful in recruiting 84 families in the intervention schools and retaining 72 throughout the project (85% families). Schools have also reported that this initial engagement has led to continued involvement by these families with the school.

Previous research commissioned by the Sutton Trust found a 19 month gap in development between the most and least advantaged children at five, a strong predictor of future outcomes in education, health, wealth, and wellbeing. There is evidence that engaged parents and a vibrant home learning environment are major influences on children’s development, yet little is known about effective strategies to support families who are struggling to provide this. These results are an important step towards understanding how to support parents in home learning activities that will help their children get ready for school.

The Parental Engagement Network is one of six organisations to have been awarded funding as part of the Sutton Trust and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation’s £1m parental engagement fund, designed to boost learning for disadvantaged 2 – 6 year olds. This trial forms part of the charities’ investment to support the growth, increased effectiveness and impact measurement of the initiatives.

The training and resources to do the project are now available to other schools – please see

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“We know that the attainment gap between the richest and the poorest pupils begins before they’ve even started school. Tackling this gap early on is critical to breaking the cycle of disadvantage and improving social mobility.

“But it can be difficult to get parents involved in their child’s learning. Today’s results show the potential for the Engaging Parents Effectively project.  It is an effective way of improving parental engagement with the support of schools and shows that it is worthwhile putting time and energy into doing so.”


  1. The full report is available here.
  2. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  3. Esmée Fairbairn Foundation aims to improve the quality of life for people and communities throughout the UK both now and in the future. We do this by funding the charitable work of organisations who are building an inclusive, creative and sustainable society. The Foundation is one of the largest independent grant-makers in the UK.  In 2016 we made grants of £42.4 million towards a wide range of work within the arts, children and young people, the environment, food and social change. We also have a £45 million allocation to social investments for organisations with the aim of creating social impact.
  4. Sound Foundations, a report by University of Oxford academics for the Sutton Trust, highlighted the importance of parental engagement during the early years on positive child outcomes.
  5. The Parental Engagement Network is one of six organisations being supported by the Sutton Trust and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation’s £1m Parental Engagement Fund. The aim of the fund is to boost learning for disadvantaged young children through the development of more effective parental engagement. The organisations have been paired with a team from the University of Oxford who have been acting as an independent evaluator and “critical friend”, guiding the organisations in their use of evaluation to improve practice as well as to demonstrate impact. In addition, the hope is to improve the sustainability of effective interventions and to identify the active ingredients to share with the sector.

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