Unlocking the power of parenting

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Unlocking the power of parenting

Last week, I was at the Lego Ideas Conference, and the theme was around parental engagement. Nesta do a wide range of work around learning, but in particular our connection with the topic of parenting is threefold:

Firstly, Maths Mission, set up by Tata and Nesta to find innovative ways to improve maths skills. Through the Solving Together challenge we are working with parents to improve maths problem-solving skills. In Phase 1, with the Behavioural Insights Team, we conducted a randomised controlled trial at 3 schools involving 2,157 students on the impact of weekly text messaging on parental engagement at secondary school. The messages informed parents of what their child was covering in maths class that week as well as any upcoming tests or events. The evaluation found that the intervention supported increased parental engagement. In Phase 2, we will be launching an open call for organisations working in the area of parental engagement in maths to apply for a grant and non-financial support. Through this fund, we will continue to support high-potential, innovative solutions and contribute to the evidence base for what technology solutions work.

Secondly, Early Years Social Action Fund (£1.2m) is scaling proven social action interventions that help children to achieve development outcomes by directly supporting parents. By 2019, the fund will have helped scale five different initiatives to 59 new areas, mobilising over 1,550 volunteers supporting 3,400 families, and bringing in £2.25m of match funding. The five interventions the fund is backing are:

  • LENA Home - using digital ‘word pedometers’ and home visits from volunteer coaches to close the 30 million word-gap and improve language acquisition for disadvantaged kids.
  • Parent Child Home Programme - home visits over 15 months by trained volunteers using an evidence-based ‘curriculum’ of free books and toys.
  • Birth and Beyond Community Support - ongoing 1:1 peer support for mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds in their first 1,000 days following pregnancy.
  • Parents and Communities Together - community organising to reach and support struggling hard to reach families with parenting courses and workshops.
  • Empowering Parents, Empowering Communities - evidence-based parenting programme delivered by community members in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Finally, we have announced an Edtech partnership with Department of Education to address some of the key challenges in education - parental engagement is one of those. We’ll be mapping existing tools to support parental engagement and looking at the gaps. Through the testbeds we’ll be answering the question: How to support secondary schools and colleges to improve parental engagement through more effective use of digital technologies?


Not only did I make valuable connections with potential partners, thought leaders and startups working in parental engagement, I also learned a lot to help me improve my own parenting journey.

On a personal note, I learnt that time is precious - so I need to make time to play with my two daughters (aged 5 and 9), help them build creativity, resilience and adaptability. Let them experiment - and in doing so they will learn more about themselves and how they can influence the world. My wish for my daughters is for them to be happy and achieve their full potential. I learnt that by fostering playful parenting, I can empower my children to become lifelong learners. I learnt that I should be more playful in my work.

We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.

Big change requires everyone. If parents come along, big movements can happen. We can move beyond schooling to learning if we build an ecosystem that supports parents and teachers. Context matters and if parents are not part of the conversation then the process of change takes longer. One example that cited was that in New York when a school introduced project based learning without bringing parents on the journey, the programme didn’t succeed. Parents are vested in the best learning for their kids but saw project based learning as a distraction from preparing kids for college and exams. Even though there is evidence that project-based learning builds 21st century skills like creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication. Evidence alone is not enough.

So how can we help parents? How can we empower children to shape tomorrow that is driven by AI? What are the possibilities for engagement? What are their priorities and aspirations? There are design implications for the work that we do as we implement the new Edtech strategy.

The four criteria for taking parenting programmes to scale are:

  1. Evidence of effectiveness
  2. Economical and efficient
  3. Contextually and culturally relevant
  4. Scalable and sustainable

For the closing plenary, Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Malala and cofounder of Malala Fund, shared his inspiring story of how he Let Her Fly. Despite coming from a patriarchal society he followed the values of an egalitarian society and fought for equality for girls. He shared the following poem from Khalil Gibran. His story reminded me of my own dad who let his daughter fly. My parents were ahead of their time to let their daughter fly to another country at the age of 17. Thank you to my parents for their belief in me and giving me the best education that they could.


Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them,

but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

- Khalil Gibran


Joysy John

Joysy John

Joysy John

Director of Education

Joysy was the Director of Education and led Nesta's work in education across innovation programmes, research and investment.

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