Foundations Deputy Chief Executive Donna Molloy explains why investing in parenting support offers a way to eradicate the disadvantage gap and should be a focus for whichever party is next in government.
As party conference season comes to an end, we’ve been thinking about the disadvantage gap – and what whichever party is in government after the next election can do to eradicate this gap.
Alongside the case for boosting payments to families via the benefits system and strengthening wider public services, the role of supporting parenting as part of future attempts to reduce income-related attainment gaps in the early years is crucial.
There is a very compelling case to invest in the models of parenting support shown to be effective and for those locally to work to ensure they reach the families who need this the most.
Parenting, and the quality of the parent-child relationship, is one of the most important influences on children’s development in the early years. Most parents do an excellent job at supporting their children’s needs but some struggle, for a variety of well documented reasons. Parental mental health problems and high levels of conflict between parents can reduce parents’ capacity to engage positively with their children. High levels of economic stress can make it difficult for parents to meet their children’s needs. As a result, inequalities in children’s early development open up early and these gaps are difficult to close. Carefully targeted parenting and family support, provided at the earliest opportunity can make a significant difference to these children’s lives.
This is an area where we know what works and we need to increase availability of programmes shown to improve children’s outcomes.
As an example, our previous work looked at 75 interventions covering conception to age 5, delivered in the UK and found about a quarter had good evidence of improving child outcomes. The strongest evidence is for targeted programmes with a very clear target population and rationale.
For example, intensive home visiting between birth and 2 years has been repeatedly shown to reduce income-related learning gaps when targeted at families with one or more risks. The best known example is Family Nurse Partnership (FNP), a home-visiting programme for young mothers expecting their first child, which has good evidence of improving the home learning environment, children’s early language development, and other cognitive outcomes. In the UK FNP has some of the best evidence about helping children achieve good levels of development at the end of reception and key stage one.1
Supporting parenting is also not just important for children’s educational development and is also crucial in terms of children’s behaviour and mental health.
Lack of sensitive parenting and use of harsh discipline is linked to behavioural problems, which affect 5–10% of young children. Without support, parents can inadvertently reinforce negative behaviours, making these behaviours more entrenched, which can lead to further difficulties such as school failure and anti-social behaviour. By providing parents with strategies to respond to difficult behaviour, effective programmes can intercept behaviour problems early. Again, this is an area where we know what works. Problems can be stopped if effective intervention is offered to families who need it the most between ages of 2–3. There is extensive evidence for group-based parenting interventions (such as the Incredible Years pre-school programme) which are relatively low cost and have good evidence of improving children’s behaviour and the quality of the parent-child relationship.2
As well as thinking about what support needs to be available, we need to also focus on how to make sure those who need support can access these programmes. These interventions aren’t new: we’ve known about them for a long time, yet there is a gap between what the evidence tells us is effective and what is often available to children and families locally. Many of the interventions shown to work are not widely available. For example, the Incredible Years parenting intervention has undergone five UK trials since 2002, each confirming consistent changes in children’s behaviour, lasting for ten years or more. Yet surveys consistently show that less than 25% of children and young people needing support receive it. 3
Research and evidence have transformed healthcare: we must ask ourselves why we aren’t thinking about effectiveness in terms of support for vulnerable children and families in the same way?
My reflection on the last two decades of policy initiatives in this space is that we often have the right ambitions or try to do the right things, but how we go about achieving these ambitions is often insufficient. And we don’t stay the course. Previous governments have for example, attempted to scale up both FNP and the Incredible Years Programme, but this has not had the sustained focus that is needed.
I’d argue, where we have good evidence about interventions shown to improve outcomes, we should be using this rather than reinventing wheels or developing new service models.
We need to give renewed attention to scaling up effective support for parenting. This has the potential to reduce income-related disadvantage gaps in education, but also yield wider benefits in terms of reducing pressure on the NHS and criminal justice system. Working with partners to increase the availability of parenting support shown to improve outcomes, will be a priority in some of Foundations forthcoming work. But we need to go further, the next spending review creates a real opportunity to get this right. Let’s seize it!
1 Robling, M., Cannings-John, R., & Lugg-Widger, F. (2022). Using multiple routine data sources linked to a trial cohort to establish the longer-term effectiveness of specialist home visiting in England: main results of the BB: 2-6 study of the Family Nurse Partnership. International Journal of Population Data Science, 7(3).
2 Scott, S., Briskman, J., & O’Connor, T. G. (2014). Early prevention of antisocial personality: long-term follow-up of two randomized controlled trials comparing indicated and selective approaches. American Journal of Psychiatry, 171(6), 649-657.