Last year, EasyPeasy joined the Sutton Trust and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation’s Parental Engagement Fund, designed to increase our knowledge of what works to improve parental engagement in the early years. The programme’s mission is remarkably similar to our own at EasyPeasy.
Only a year before that, when EasyPeasy was just a twinkle in our eye, our team had simply set out to tackle what’s known as a the ‘school readiness gap’ – or the large gap in development between children from different backgrounds that is already widespread at age 5. We didn’t yet know what our solution would look like, but we did know what the research base told us: that parents and home learning environment are the primary influence on children’s development. We took that as our starting point, and over the intervening months, we developed what became EasyPeasy: an app that uses simple games to get parents and kids playing together, increasing positive interactions at home and helping to prepare kids for school.
The Parental Engagement Fund came with the incredibly valuable opportunity of working with a research team from the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. This team would act as a critical friend to EasyPeasy, helping us design, deliver, and analyse an evaluation to test if our app was genuinely having the impact we hoped it was.
In late 2015, together with Professor Kathy Sylva and Fiona Jelley at Oxford, we went for the jugular and designed a ‘Randomised Control Trial’ – considered to be the ‘gold standard’ for evaluation in social science and education, but also regarded as a particularly complicated method to implement. The benefits of association with Sutton Trust and Oxford helped us form a brilliant delivery partnership with Bournemouth Borough Council’s early help team, and in January 2016 we began to implement an RCT with 150 local families. Several months later we launched a second RCT through an additional partnership with London Borough of Newham, reaching another 300 families across the East London borough. Over the past year over 1000 parents children and practitioners have taken part in our studies and and helped EasyPeasy test, iterate, improve and ultimately establish early evidence of our efficacy. The trial showed that the app helps boost children’s concentration and parents’ ability to set boundaries.
As a tech start up founder with a background in public policy research, I’ve long been wedded to evidence. Technology gives us treasure troves of data, about engagement, user behaviour and retention, and a myriad of tools to analyse, iterate, and test hypotheses. Improving products and services, and understanding the behaviour of users is absolutely essential to building things that people will actually use and enjoy; it is essential for growth. From a policy perspective, cross party consensus has put ‘what works’ centres at the heart of commissioning decisions in many areas from health to education to early intervention. In a year of ‘post-truth’, it’s more important than ever to continue using all the powers that scientific investigation gives us to make smart and impactful decisions about how to best spend diminishing public money.
On Wednesday, Alan Milburn, chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission, said solving the country’s social mobility problem is the ‘political holy grail’. We know that, by age five, a child’s development is highly predictive of their future outcomes in attainment, health & wellbeing, and future earnings. We also know, categorically, that the early years is the most efficient time to invest public money and get the biggest returns on limited public funds. It’s in this context that we’ve got to stay true to a commitment to discovering what types of services and interventions work, and where programmes like the Parental Engagement Fund play such an important role.
I remember about two thirds of the way through our RCT being asked by a potential investor in EasyPeasy ‘what keeps you up at night?’. At this point, we were really ‘in the thick of it’. We had committed to testing EasyPeasy’s impact in a way which could come back with only a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer. We had also spent significant capacity and resource delivering the apparatus of the study (training delivery staff, collecting data, managing logistics). We all felt the full weight of the risk. Was it going to be worth it, or were we going to put the nail in the coffin ourselves through choosing such a tough form of evaluation, too soon?
Today we release the results of our study with Oxford. It’s a proud moment for us, and it does feel vindicating to have a good outcome after such a lot of risk and hard work. But of course it’s just one part of the story. If we’re to capture the ‘holy grail’ we’ll need more than just evidence. The eminent Dartington Social Research Unit – who has most recently worked to scale maternal health programmes globally with the Gates Foundation – talks about three key measures of success, and efficacy is just one of them. Reach – how far your service goes and how many people benefit from it – and quality of implementation – keeping the consistency and quality high as you scale – are both crucial indicators as well. We’ve taken a significant step down the path, but the journey continues.
Jen Lexmond is Founder and CEO of EasyPeasy. EasyPeasy is one of six projects funded through the Sutton Trust’s parental engagement fund. EasyPeasy is inviting local authorities to partner with them in 2017 to expand its reach and build EasyPeasy’s ‘systems readiness’. If you are interested please email firstname.lastname@example.org.