Creating national policy that improves outcomes for disadvantaged young people is no walk in the park, but early years education and childcare is a particularly tricky area to get right.
This is because it cuts across many complex aspects of social policy, from education to the labour market to the benefits system.
In the two decades since early years campaigners achieved their goal of securing free nursery education for every three and four-year-old, much has changed: parents get more time off and families have benefited from tax credits.
Sure Start children’s centres have brought many services together, too, despite cuts in recent years.
This long-overdue focus on the early years is to be welcomed. They are a vital time in the life of any child and play a significant role in shaping the person they will become and the opportunities in life they will have.
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It is also a crucial, and often difficult, time for parents, who are trying to balance dedicating time and energy to their child with the need to provide financial stability.
The attainment gap also first takes hold in the early years. We see a big gap in the school readiness of less well-off children, compared with their more advantaged classmates, by the time they start school – disadvantaged five-year-olds are estimated to be over four months behind their peers. This link between family income and attainment, even among young children, is clear-cut and incredibly hard to reverse.
But there is nothing inevitable about this trajectory. The best research we have – most notably from the original Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) report – gives us a much more hopeful message.
As a parent, your occupation, education and family income matter less to your child’s intellectual and social development than what you actually do with your child. In short, parenting can trump background.
Research by our sister charity, the Sutton Trust, found that good parenting and a supportive home environment are more important determinants of good test scores at age 5 than family income. The research also found that large numbers of the poorest children are read to every day, taken to places of interest and given regular bedtimes.
And evidence from our Early Years Toolkit suggests that effective parental engagement can lead to learning gains of around four months over the course of a year.
This shows what is possible.
There are, of course, challenges. Parents from low-income backgrounds, as well as often being time-poor, may lack confidence in their own reading, writing and maths.
But if we can help more families in difficult circumstances to adopt some simple, practical and evidence-based steps – like daily reading with their child, teaching them songs and nursery rhymes, and playing with letters and numbers – it will help their children to discover the joy of learning. This, in turn, will help to close the early attainment gap.
We can make a start with the poorest two- and three-year-olds. Part of the answer lies in giving toddlers from disadvantaged homes access to high-quality nursery provision, with well-trained and skilled staff. But parents are a crucial part of that equation. After all, they are our earliest educators.
Home learning environment
So it has been welcome to see the Department for Education, education secretary Damian Hinds and children and families minister Nadeem Zahawi make the home learning environment one of their key priorities. Their £5 million fund – which we are partnering with them on together with Leeds-based charity SHINE – will find out how early years settings can best work with parents to support their children in language and reading at an early stage.
This is a brave choice for government. Working with parents to improve children’s learning is unlikely to yield quick wins and will require sustained effort and support. Yet the prize is so great that we simply cannot shirk the challenge.
There are some practical things that schools and early years settings can do, too. Our guidance report on parental engagement reviews the best available research to offer schools and teachers four recommendations.
An over-arching recommendation focuses on the importance of schools planning and monitoring parental engagement activities to get the most out of them. Other recommendations look at the best ways to communicate with parents, and strategies for supporting learning at home.
By building effective practice and contributing to a growing evidence base, we can support more parents actively to engage in their children’s learning, from the early years and throughout school, radically improving their life chances.
Sir Kevan Collins is chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation