About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Working with parents to support early years programmes

The role of parent power in how early years support is provided is increasingly recognised as positive and necessary if we are to ensure the best outcomes for children. Nesta has been working with a new initiative, Thrive at Five, to harness the power of parents and communities in Stoke by piloting a new approach to parent-led support called community champions. Volunteer parents will work with Thrive at Five to define a role that combines circulating information, sign-posting to services and community activity to support other parents.

In 2020, Nesta published Parents helping parents: it takes a village, a report about the early years social action innovation fund DCMS and Nesta ran between 2017-2020 to help more children aged four and under achieve their developmental milestones through social action. The programme found parent-powered approaches can enhance family support in a range of ways, from improving parental confidence to increasing social connections and engaging parents that public services struggle to reach.

Thrive at Five is an initiative which builds on this field of pioneering social action initiatives in the early years. One of Thrive at Five’s objectives is to take a community-level approach that harnesses the collective, latent power of parents to create lasting change for young children. For the past year, Nesta and Thrive at Five have been working in two areas in Stoke – Bentilee and Abbey Hulton – to bring this mission to life.

Our first challenge was to identify which model of parent-led support would be right for Stoke. The aim of our research was to understand the needs of local parents so that we, and they, had a better idea of what Stoke needed, what the local appetite and capacity was for support and how any initiative should begin.

Our work began in Summer 2021 with a “discovery phase” which included interviews with parents and professionals. We have subsequently completed a second phase, testing concepts for models of parent-led peer support with a diverse sample of parents in Stoke. During this phase we tested different models of parent-led support to see which would be of most interest to parents in Stoke.

This work included visits to the wards of Bentilee and Abbey Hulton in December 2021, which included group conversations and 1-1 interviews with parents at a local parent group as well as “guerilla” interviews with parents in public places. We then conducted Zoom workshops with parents whose older children attend schools in Bentilee and Abbey Hulton. Finally, we distributed an online survey to parents via schools in Bentilee and Abbey Hulton (40 responses were received).

The three concepts of parent-led peer support we tested

Professionals give parents support, skills and knowledge to pass on good advice to other families. Parents help spread the word about what is on offer. This is good as a light-touch entry point for parents.

Some parents work with a service to help professionals better understand a community’s needs and to help them tweak support to families. Parents champions then help to deliver the service to other parents. This is good for small numbers of committed parents.

Parents and professionals running a service (like a playgroup) together. Parents are deeply involved in all aspects of the service and help make key decisions. This is good for when Thrive at five is more established in Stoke and has developed networks of support.

What we learned

  • Parents are anxious about the impact of Covid-19 and decreasing early years provision on their children’s development; it’s possible parent-led support can fill some (not all) of these gaps.
  • There is widespread social isolation among parents. Our survey found that over half (52.5%) of respondents rarely or never met with other parents – parent-champion models can and should aim to increase social connections.
  • Parents complain of a lack of things to do and informal spaces for parents and children to socialise – pairing improvements to local public spaces (eg, park clean up) with community champion models could achieve two benefits at once.
  • Interviews found indications there is an unmet appetite for learning about parenting – this suggests there is potential demand for community champion models which involve circulating parenting advice.
  • Parents would value the opportunity to speak to other parents, but would also like to speak to professionals – community champion-led activity could blend parent support with professional involvement.
  • Parents are motivated to participate, but some would prefer a “light touch” option to start with.
  • Parents favour classes happening in schools, nurseries or children’s centres, rather than churches or religious buildings.
  • Where there is a meaningful time commitment, parents worried about the impact it might have on their ability to earn money – some compensation might be necessary for long-term participation.
  • Many parents expressed enthusiasm but also a lack of confidence in taking part – training would be required to increase confidence.
  • Parents of children with SEN, and parents from minority communities, expressed different preferences and needs which should be explored as the initial pilots take place.

The next phase of work is a proof-of-concept pilot activity over the Summer of 2022. A small number of “community champions” will be recruited and provided with training including “learning through play”, delivered by Lego. Together with Thrive at Five, these community champions will support and lead a series of events and activities in Stoke over the summer to test out how they could support other parents, for example a weekly Duplo club at a local children’s centre. Nesta will follow the journeys of these parents and conduct learning exercises with them to capture learning about success factors. This in turn will support the co-design of the next iteration of the community champion role and other future initiatives.

Part of
Thrive at five


Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Tom is the deputy mission director for the fairer start mission at Nesta.

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