The Parental Engagement Fund (PEF) was a £1 million fund which launched in 2014 and ran for three years. It was managed by the Sutton Trust and funded by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. The fund was set up to increase our knowledge of what works to engage parents, improve the home learning environment and support child development. The fund supported existing parental engagement interventions to develop their delivery and increase these interventions understanding of evaluation and impact. The need for this knowledge of what supports the home learning environment has grown even stronger since the launch of the fund, with commissioners at every level shifting their focus to early interventions and increasingly requiring robust impact evidence when deciding what they will fund or endorse.
The successful recruitment strategies of the five PEF programmes resulted in the involvement of a total of 1,329 families (typically parent-child dyads) across the fund. Recruitment of parents is often a challenge when participation is voluntary and when your target group are busy parents facing multiple demands on their time and unpredictable life events.
The organisations involved in PEF are to be congratulated for their heroic effort in embracing the opportunity and its significant challenges. Identifying impact using a rigorous approach to collecting evidence is difficult. It is hard to ‘prove’ that a social intervention works. Absence of evidence does not necessarily mean it does not work; it means we just can’t be sure one way or another.
We were encouraged to find promising evidence of impact in several trials:
Making it Real – there was a statistically significant difference between intervention and control groups on one of the five outcome measures showing a significant effect of the intervention on the Home Learning Environment Index.
Parental Engagement Network (PEN) there was a statistically significant difference between intervention and control groups on one of the five outcome measures, and a second outcome measure that was approaching significance. The analyses showed a significant effect of the intervention on the child’s Home Learning Environment score. There was also a trend (p=.056) towards a difference between intervention and control groups on the Family Support subscale from the BESSI.
Easy Peasy – There were promising findings from two trial sites – Bournemouth and Newham which showed significant positive benefits for the intervention group compared with the control group on children’s cognitive self-regulation, as well as parenting self-efficacy.
The programmes were all delivered and evaluated in a challenging climate with very tight restrictions on finance for local authorities. Reduced availability of funds from government has meant increased demand on Trusts and Foundations.
The closure or hollowing out of Children’s Centres, has also put enormous strain on organisations who delivered their programmes in children’s centres. One of the six organisations selected for PEF had to pull out, in part, because of such pressures.
Investing in innovation is a risk because many very good ideas turn out not to work. Funders like to support innovation and at the same time require evidence of effectiveness, two characteristics which whilst not mutually exclusive are in tension.
PEF supported these programmes developed at grass roots level in the UK to demonstrate their impact and attract future funding and delivery opportunities. All five active PEF programmes went on to attract opportunities either to expand their delivery and develop their evidence of impact or both.
In selecting the organisations for PEF, we were interested in those that demonstrated persistent curiosity those who had a genuine interest in identifying the most effective practice . This resulted in valuable lessons being learnt even in the absence of quantitative trial data (see Reader report) and with Peep provided an essential step in their progress towards an RCT with the EEF.