The earliest years of our lives are some of our most important and play a crucial role in shaping our future life outcomes. Research shows that the biggest indicator of how well a child does in their GCSEs is the progress that child has made by the age of five. And we know that better educational attainment leads to higher qualifications and higher wages later in life.
While there are many important influences on early childhood development, parents play a particularly key role in influencing early years development yet often lack support to give children the best start in life. We now know that parents can have the biggest impact on a child’s development but the current support system for parents is fragmented and fails to harness existing skills. Our latest report calls for fundamental changes to be made to support parents so that they can have a positive impact on early learning.
So what stops every family from receiving the support they need? Based on our work supporting early years innovators, and from discussions with parents, practitioners working with families and early years experts, we have identified a number of challenges.
Firstly, the family support system is highly fragmented, with differing views of what a ‘family support service’ should look like at a local level. We know that public services often struggle to reach families that need them the most. For example, research shows that low-income families, who stand to benefit the most from family support like childcare and early education, are the least likely to access it. The result of this is varying types and quality of support, and large amounts of unmet need in some parts of the country.
At the same time, funding reductions over the past decade have shifted public services to focus on reactive, more costly support and less on services like parenting programmes or children’s centres. For example, an Institute for Fiscal Studies report for the Children’s Commissioner found that as a result of budget cuts, nearly half of the country’s children’s services budget has had to be prioritised towards the 73,000 children in the care system – leaving the other half for the remaining 11.7 million kids.
But it’s not all about funding. How we design and deliver support to families is also vitally important. We think that too often public services don’t start from the agency of parents and fail to draw from and build on their energy and skills. And rarely are public services designed to intentionally foster community connections, despite us knowing that these connections can be vital lifelines for new families.
The UK has a rich history of parents supporting each other through parent-led playgroups, peer support groups, volunteer doulas and more formal charities dating back hundreds of years. And a wealth of evidence shows that parents have assets, skills and experiences that, when combined with high-quality professional services, can lead to better outcomes for families in the early years.
Based on this evidence, we’ve been working with a number of family support organisations over the past five years or so that harness the power of parents and their communities to support families, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, and ultimately improve the life chances of children.
These ‘parent-powered approaches’ can take many forms. As can be seen in our typology of parent power, they include models that use the energy and skills of community members through formal and informal volunteering, those that build connections between other parents, and others that help families say what matters to them, shaping the design and delivery of support they want and need.
Examples range from peer support to parent-led parenting courses or nurseries, and from parental champion networks to community organising models that support collective action. What runs through each of them is a different understanding of the role parents can and should play, where power is shared and combined to achieve things that public services cannot on their own.
We’ve seen that, as well as improving outcomes for parents and children, parent-powered approaches can improve family support by engaging families that public services struggle to reach, developing social connections and informal support networks for families, and making family support services more accessible, responsive and trusted. But these benefits can only be fully realised when parent power is embedded within public services.
Public services haven’t always seen how this approach can complement professional services, or recognised the value that parent power, when embedded within and alongside great professional support, can bring. However, the truth is that we cannot afford to keep parent-powered approaches on the periphery. The consequences of failing to do so are stark.
Families, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, will continue to go without the support and relationships they need to ensure their children can thrive. Public services will continue to focus on reactive, costly services at the expense of prevention and early intervention. And a huge wealth of experience, skills, and energy of parents and community members will remain untapped.
To embed parent-powered models within and alongside public services, and to realise the potential of these approaches, will require a set of fundamental shifts in how we deliver, design and invest in family support, which we outline in our new report Parents Helping Parents. The report calls for significant investment from the government to create a national Family Support Fund that would enable local areas to adopt and test parent-powered models of supporting families. The fund should be used to help local areas to adopt mechanisms that provide meaningful parent participation in local agenda-setting and decisions; experiment with models that develop connections and relationships between parents; and help integrate parent-powered approaches in and alongside a range of professionally delivered services.
We know that, despite the critical role they play in their child’s development, parents don’t always receive the support they need. But if shifts can be made, as we outline in our report, to truly harness the potential of parent power, we have the chance to improve the ability of our public services to help families at a critical time of change. Ultimately, improving support for families will mean that children, particularly those from low-income families, will have better and more equal life chances. Surely there’s no better investment than that?
Find out more about our work on parent-powered family support.