Parental engagement is often regarded as the missing link by educators, that elusive ingredient in the educational journey. The feeling is that if we get it right we can see a much greater impact on what happens in the classroom. But finding out what works is harder than you might think, as I’ve seen working on testing the impact of some promising projects.
Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Sutton Trust are working with six voluntary organisations to help them build evidence of the impact their interventions are having on educational outcomes for disadvantaged children ranging in age from two to six. The interventions include supporting parents to engage in their children’s learning through developing their own love of books, identifying day to day opportunities to reinforce early literacy, sending parents ideas of educational games to play with their children through a smartphone app, and training early years practitioners to engage parents in their children’s early education.
I am part of a small team from the University Of Oxford Department Of Education who are helping them to design evaluation strategies that are practical to deliver for small organisations while having sufficient rigour to provide useful information about impact.
We met earlier this month with the organisations and Impetus Private Equity Foundation who are helping them to identify key organisational features that improve quality of delivery of the interventions. This was about learning both from what has worked and what hasn’t.
We gathered in workshops looking at programme design, attendance, delivery level and leadership level learning, trying to answer the questions ‘Could we do what we do better and if so, how should we adapt?’
There are no easy answers, but we need to know them if delivery is going to be scaled up.
We saw a number of important messages emerging from the day. The first is how much harder it is to test out parental engagement interventions than testing out classroom based interventions. Schools are different from almost every other public service, in that all children must attend school, most parents agree that children should attend school, and the basic aims of education are widely understood and supported by the public. Parental interventions are almost always voluntary, and ensuring participation from those who could benefit most from a programme is a challenge.
But the more we learn about how to engage parents, the greater our chance of changing children’s lives for the better.
The second key message is about the challenge of the task itself: it is widely accepted that school success is largely influenced by what mothers and fathers do at home with their children before school, and continue to do at home during the primary school years. We know which behaviours are effective in developing a love of learning in children. However, knowing something makes a difference is not the same as being able to get parents to carry out those activities that make that difference. Changing behaviour is hard which is why it’s important to build the evidence of what works, and that’s what these organisations are focused on doing.
And then there is the question of cost, something we must focus on in the early stages of planning an intervention. The cost will play a big role in the likelihood that any intervention, even those with a very good evidence base of effectiveness, is taken up. A wonderful programme that is out of reach for those it could most help is useless. We need to work hard to ensure our interventions are cost effective taking into account the level of impact they have.
Impetus PEF encouraged a forensic focus on a clearly explained purpose as the key to success. The temptation to try to achieve many things with one intervention is great, but so are the risks: diluting expertise and impact, making it difficult to ascribe particular outcomes to particular aspects of the intervention. Clarity of purpose also works to ensure that across all likely partners there is a shared understanding of what the intervention and the organisation promoting it is all about.
Finally, it was clear by the end of the day, and by the small group discussions, that sharing what did not work as well as what strategies did work is essential, as it demonstrates that no one has all the answers. The reassurance that we all face similar challenges provides encouragement to keep striving to improve. After all, by being persistently curious about our practice and learning what does and doesn’t work for others, we give ourselves the best possible chance of improving outcomes for children.
Naomi Eisenstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford Department for Education and is working with the Sutton Trust on our early years Parental Engagement Fund. She led the Sure Start programme in England during the 2000s and is an adviser to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on children’s issues. She is also a member of the Sutton Trust’s Education Advisory Group.