Tackling disadvantage in the early years Contents

Supporting a strong home learning environment

“It is unarguable now after decades of evidence that parental engagement makes a difference.”56

Sir Kevan Collins

44.Although early years education is an important element of improving life chances, evidence suggests that parenting is one of the most important drivers of social inequalities in a child’s cognitive development before school.57 A study by the Sutton Trust identified that children without secure parental bonds are more likely to have behavioural and literacy problems, and that boys in particular growing up in poverty are two and a half times less likely to display behaviour problems at school if they have secure attachments with parents in the early years. The Sutton Trust also found that those without strong bonds may also be more likely to be not in education, employment or training and less likely to be socially mobile.58

45.Research by Action for Children found that parenting impacts both cognitive and socio-economic development, each of which plays an important role in determining children’s life chances. It also discovered that nurturing and sensitive parenting styles are related to positive developmental outcomes, including good behaviour and academic success, and that infants who develop a strong attachment to their parents because of warm and consistent care are more likely to develop feelings of empathy and trust, and have a positive sense about themselves and others.59

Support before and after birth

46.Although early education has a huge impact on children’s life chances, ensuring positive life chances for children starts before birth.60 The Association of Directors of Public Health wrote that

Poor perinatal mental health, being overweight, and engaging in harmful behaviours such as smoking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy can affect bonding and have significant consequences for child development and health.61

47.Support after birth is also crucial. A report from the Early Intervention Foundation indicated that parental education levels and maternal mental health are important factors for explaining the higher prevalence of behavioural and emotional problems amongst disadvantaged children.62

48.The role of health visitors is significant for supporting parents in the period after birth. Health visitors are the most common source of guidance for parents, and they play a wider role in prevention and early intervention.63 In his written evidence, Rt Hon Frank Field MP noted that “Home visits are a vital source of support for new parents and their children, who are currently meant to receive five mandatory home visits for each newborn.”64 He shared the results of a programme in the US:

Much evidence shows that increasing the number of home visits improves outcomes. For instance, the Parent Child Home Programme (PCHP) established by Family Lives is a US-based 15 month structured programme which includes up to 92 home visits over their first five years of a child’s life. PCHP children are 50% more likely to measure ready for school than their socio-economic peers; outperformed the statewide average on third grade state maths achievement test; scored 2.5 times higher on social-emotional measures; have a 30% higher graduation rate than their socio-economic peers; and enter school performing 10 months above their chronological age.

49.However, there is a lack of data on the number of health visitors, how many parents are receiving the minimum number of mandatory home visits, or the effectiveness of practice. Frank Field explained it clearly:

In 2015 public health services for children aged 0 to 5 were transferred from the NHS to local authorities. There is therefore little or no centralised understanding of the number of health visitors, nor the effectiveness of home visiting practices across the UK.

50.The Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into evidence-based early-years intervention found that only around 80% of children were receiving the home visits required. Professor Viv Bennett, Chief Nurse at Public Health England (PHE), told the Committee that PHE did not currently have the data necessary to be able to characterise those who did not receive the checks.65

51.Support for parents before and after birth is a key starting point for ensuring good life chances for children. Home visits from health visitors is a crucial part of this support. We recommend that the Government should ensure that local authorities are collecting full and complete data on the number of home visitors and home visits conducted in their area, providing additional funding if necessary.

52.We recommend that the Department for Education work with the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a health in maternity strategy covering the first 1,001 critical days from conception to the age of two.

53.We also encourage the Government to make more comprehensive and needs- and evidence-led use of children’s centres including utilising contact time with registrars and signposting parents to relevant support services.

The home learning environment

54.Parental support and the home learning environment have a major effect on children’s life chances. Research shows that the effect of home learning activities during the preschool period continues to be evident in children’s developmental profiles at the end of Key Stage 1.66 Dr Shirley Woods-Gallagher, Strategic Lead, Reform and Innovation at Manchester City Council, told us about the Greater Manchester emphasis on the home learning environment:

A big part of the GM [Greater Manchester] approach [ … ] was a real, strong emphasis on the importance of the home learning environment. Although families may come from areas of disadvantage, we know the enriched home learning environment is the big thing that can make a difference.67

Communication and language development

55.The home learning environment is particularly important for children’s oracy and language development, which, although not the only important skill to be developed, is vital for children’s life chances. There is a correlation between the rate at which children develop language and the input that they receive from parents and carers. The Association of School and College Leaders explained that:

These interactions give children a stronger grasp of language by the time they start school, an advantage which stays with them throughout their education. If it is not dealt with in the early years, the word gap is shown to widen as the child gets older. Children who start school with low levels of vocabulary are disproportionately from lower socio-economic backgrounds.68

The cause of the early years word gap has been identified as both the quality and quantity of parent-child interactions.69

56.The importance of the home learning environment for language development is evidenced in a recent study by Oxford University Press, which identified that teachers have found the word gap to be a major barrier to children’s learning throughout their schooling. It found that teachers report 49% of Year 1 pupils have a vocabulary limited to the extent that it affects their learning, and 43% of Year 7 pupils are affected by the same problem.70 Research by Save the Children has found that children who are behind in their early language skills at age five are six times more likely to be behind in English, and 11 times more likely to be behind in maths at the end of primary school.71

57.Bob Reitemeier, Chief Executive of I CAN (a children’s communication charity), told us that “85% of a child’s language—vocabulary, comprehension—is a result of their language environment, which you can call the family in most cases”. He contended that since that is the case, “you have to look at ways in which you can help the family develop a language-rich environment, which makes a huge impact on the child later on”.72 Dr Shirley Woods-Gallagher argued for public health campaigns to support the home learning environment:

People know about not smoking in pregnancy and not drinking in pregnancy. Does everyone know that it is really important that you talk to your baby even when they do not talk back? Do people know that when you play with building blocks with your child, it is not just building blocks? That also helps with the formation of language and sentence structure. Unless you know that and you work in an early years setting, it is not common knowledge. There is an awful lot more we can do.73

She added: “We have it for fruit and vegetables. Why not for speech and language?”74

58.We asked witnesses about the best way of getting messages about the home learning environment, and in particular the importance of oracy and speech and language communication, through to parents. They suggested that methods could include health visitors and midwives providing information to parents. Bob Reitemeier told us:

The health visitor is one channel, where they are in the home. We are trying to look at how you train up health visitors so that they are able to first have a knowledge themselves about the importance of speech and language communication, but then also point out and identify when there may be a difficulty.75

Dr Woods-Gallagher added:

You could do predictive modelling with families at the booking in [of midwifery care], so not just asking questions around potential medical need in a pregnancy or current safeguarding. You could talk about potential speech, language and communication perceptions parents have around talking to babies, some key messages at that point in time, flagging any concerns. At that point, you do not have to wait for the baby to arrive to access your children’s centre to come and start talking about Hanen principles and treasure baskets and things you can get involved with as soon as baby is born.76

59.Developing communication and language ability in the early years is crucial for children’s outcomes. The home learning environment has a huge part to play in supporting children to develop those skills. Interventions to support the home learning environment should have a particular focus on communication and language.

60.The Government should build upon the evidence in Greater Manchester where every child is assessed eight times between 0–5 years old, including for speech and language development, with interventions following as necessary. This model should be followed across the country.


61.We asked witnesses whether they could think of particular interventions that would best support parents to improve children’s chances in the home. They found it difficult to respond, because of a lack of evidence on interventions in the home learning environment. Sir Kevan Collins suggested which interventions seem to make the biggest difference:

The characteristics of the interventions that seem to be the ones that have the highest promise—we said this earlier and it sounds like I am repeating myself—are certainly ones that promote the language and communication between parents and their children. [ … ] You have to create a culture where you demonstrate the value and importance of it, as a value to a family, and that picks up in certain communities. It is the interventions that build relationships between parents and early learning settings.77

62.Sir Kevan told us that there is a huge problem with activity and projects to support the home learning environment without the evidence to base it on:

The final thing I would say is that it is almost a crime when we have activity without a legacy of knowledge. There has been a large number of things funded, lots of things going on in England in early education, without any legacy of rigorous knowledge, which I think is almost criminal. We run randomised control trials and they are painful but at the end of it you do get this legacy of hard knowledge about what worked and, critically, what did not work because quite a lot of what we do, I don’t think works, although other people imagine it does.78

63.We are concerned to hear of the lack of evidence about interventions that will support parents and families in creating a positive home learning environment. Interventions must be based on solid evidence and rigorous evaluation, to ensure that activity and funding is not being wasted on efforts that may not be effective.

64.We recommend that the Government commission research on interventions to support effective home learning environments. This work should be published and used as the evidence base from which to decide which projects to support.


65.While there is not yet enough evidence of the efficacy of interventions across the board, we heard some examples of interventions supporting parents to create a positive home learning environment. The case studies below set out three such projects.


What is EasyPeasy?

How does it work?

Does it have an impact?

The written submission from EasyPeasy said that:

EasyPeasy has been tested robustly and found to have a significant positive impact. The Easypeasy evidence base includes two published efficacy trials from the Sutton Trust, as well as an ongoing national trial funded by the Education Endowment Foundation.

SHINE Trust projects80

SHINE is an education charity “that gives children the opportunity to acquire the skills and confidence they need to turn their potential into school and beyond”.81 In autumn 2018, SHINE launched its ‘Ready for School’ fund to help close the communication and language gap for 4–5 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds across the North of England.

On 4 September, we visited Corrie Primary School, where the first ‘Ready for School’ programme was launched. The school has a high proportion of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and many of those children struggle with communication, language and maths skills.

The project that was launched in Corrie Primary School was to develop core maths skills in the early years, through daily maths work in small groups, and whole-class sessions based around maths stories and songs. The project also helps parents to develop and practise maths at home, complementing the learning which takes place during school time. Each family is provided with a ‘playbag’ which includes props, stories and activities to be completed outside of school time.

BBC Early Years Language and Literacy Initiative82

During our early years roundtable in Manchester in September, we met a representative from BBC Early Years Language and Literacy Initiative. The objective of the initiative is a 50% reduction in the number of children starting primary school without the expected levels of communication and language. It aims for national impact, reaching all children in the UK, with a particular focus on disadvantaged families.

It is based on four key elements:

1. Broadcasting, marketing and messaging

2. Digital proposition

3. Frontline training

4. Community activation

66.As part of our inquiry into the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we have heard about how technology can be used to support the home learning environment. Vinous Ali from techUK told us that:

There are so many courses, tools, and games [ … ] parents at home can utilise [ … ] to engage with their children at home.83

Priya Lakhani, CEO of CENTURY Tech, added:

We can use [ … ] technology where schools provide parents with their own supportal and it is personalised to them. They can see how to engage with their child, how to help their child and it gives them all of that relevant data insight. [ … ]

I think we can use technology. Parents are on applications. They are buying on Amazon, they are shopping, they are buying accommodation with Airbnb; we can create something there.84

Parental engagement

67.Parental involvement in the home learning environment is crucial. Sir Kevan Collins told us that, despite the fact that it is unknown in rigorous evidence which types of involvement are particularly effective, “it is unarguable now after decades of evidence that parental engagement makes a difference”.

68.There are very few well-evidenced, properly evaluated ways to support parental engagement. Steven McIntosh said:

I fully agree on the critical importance of the home learning environment but also that we do not yet have clear evidence on the specific interventions that work and critically how to scale them and get wider access, not just within local areas. We very much welcome the work the EEF and the Lottery Fund are doing investing in that kind of innovation to understand what works.85

69.Professor Ted Melhuish told us that “parenting is essentially a learned skill.” He explained:

You learn it from how your parents treat you, from how your neighbours treat their children and how your sister treats her child and so on.86

He went on to explain why this causes particular problems for disadvantaged groups:

One of the things that happens with disadvantaged groups is we have great clustering of disadvantaged groups in disadvantaged areas where they learn often dysfunctional behaviours from each other. If disadvantaged families were distributed more evenly around the country, you would get more models of good parenting available for disadvantaged groups and things will improve as a whole.87

70.Professor Melhuish made one suggestion about how parents could learn good parenting behaviours:

Another idea is to take “EastEnders”, put a young mother on “EastEnders” with a young baby, have her demonstrate good parenting behaviours on the screen. I think that would be a very powerful learning technique because people learn a lot of their skills from what they see their heroes doing.88

71.Steven McIntosh told us why the message itself had to be carefully constructed:

Also on the message: it is less around, “Your child’s future depends on this educational technique” than it is around the messages that we know disadvantaged families are much more likely to respond to, about family time, sharing, fun, positivity—it is much less around giving your child the skills they need to do well at school.

72.Parental engagement and involvement in the home learning environment is crucial to children’s development. We recommend that the Government commission research on interventions that will support parents in providing a strong home learning environment for their children.

Coordination with other services

73.The impact of high quality early years education on children’s life chances is key, but it should not be considered in isolation. Sara Bonetti told us of the need for a comprehensive set of services:

Connecting to these early years is one big important piece, but it cannot be considered the only one in tackling disadvantage. Disadvantage comes in many forms. We need a comprehensive set of services. In the same way, early years providers, for how outstanding they are, cannot do everything on their own. They need co-ordination with other social services.89

Steven McIntosh outlined work that Save the Children is doing on coordination:

Save the Children is also doing work in a variety of local areas around children’s communities on what a blueprint for when agencies need to work effectively together—nursery schools, children’s centres, health workers, and others—looks like.90

Children’s centres

74.Witnesses told us that children’s centres have a key role to play in coordination. Laura McFarlane, Director of the LEAP programme, National Children’s Bureau, explained that they “[enabled] education, health and social care to work more closely”.91 Professor Melhuish said that “the children’s centre model is certainly demonstrably effective with the most disadvantaged groups when it is implemented properly”.92 Dr Kitty Stewart said:

Sure Start was providing—and still is trying to provide in the areas where it is hanging on—that sort of joined-up thinking and being a hub for all the different types of interventions that are happening in an area, addressing some of the problems of outreach, because families are there from birth, from pre-birth even. They are able to do their outreach over several years.

75.Sir Kevan Collins explained why children’s centres could be so effective:

It is the interventions that build relationships between parents and early learning settings [that have the highest promise]. That is why I like children’s centres so much. Parents were welcome; they were involved. Stay and play is a great way to begin the relationship between parent and child. Targeting is a problem, of course, because that in a sense stigmatises rather than being a universal thing we all do. That is something that was raised earlier. It is anything that bridges the gap without really saying to the parent, “We are trying to point at you as somehow having a deficit or failure”. They are the interventions that seem to make the biggest difference.93

76.The Department for Education’s ‘Evaluation of children’s centres in England’ report identified positive findings on the effects of children’s centres.94 The Sutton Trust wrote that

These included a better home learning environment (this is linked to better child outcomes at school age) and a less chaotic home life; improved mothers’ mental health, and better relationships between parents and children. Children whose families had used children’s centres services when they were toddlers showed lower levels of behaviour problems when they were three years old compared to families who used fewer services. Although these changes were small, they were statistically significant and consistent across many outcomes. They demonstrate that centres helped to narrow some of the gaps linked to poverty and disadvantage.95

77.The Sutton Trust also raised concerns about the shift in focus in children’s centres away from the 0–5 age range:

Many children’s centres are being integrated into a wider package of ‘early help’ as part of local teams with a much wider age range (0–19), with more than 40% of authorities extending the age range to include school age children. Merging children’s centres into these preventative teams working with a much wider age group serves a very different function and requires very different skills with many centres no longer fitting under the label of a local ‘children’s centre’.96

The Trust recommended that “the central purpose of children’s centres to promote positive child and family development for the 0–5 age group should be stressed”.97

78.Action for Children told us in written evidence about reduced spending by councils over the past few years on a range of early intervention services including children’s centres. Their submission noted that local authorities have reduced spending on children’s centres from £1.4 billion in 2010/11 to £688 million in 2016/17.98

79.The Government had planned to hold and publish a consultation on the children’s centre programme. However, the Department for Education stated in summer 2018 that the consultation would not take place, choosing instead to focus on implementing its social mobility action plan. Stakeholders, including the Sutton Trust and Action for Children, told us in written submissions that they wanted to see the completion of the “long-promised review” of the children’s centres programmes.99

80.The Children’s Commissioner produced a discussion paper on family hubs, highlighting the potential for family hubs “to co-ordinate and prioritise support” for children in need.100 Some stakeholders have recommended that the future of children’s centres lies in a reassignment of funding and redevelopment of services to a family hub model. They argue that family hubs provide a more integrated, preventative approach to support vulnerable families. These hubs would provide a range of services in order to prioritise access to existing or developing government programmes for families (including addiction support, mental health services and domestic violence support) as well as offering children specialist health and education support, including communication skills and mentoring.101

81.In August 2015, Ofsted released a key findings document outlining the future of children’s centre inspections:

The Department for Education (DfE) will be launching a consultation later in 2015 on the Sure Start children’s centre programme which will include considerations about new accountability arrangements. The Secretary of State does not consider it appropriate to start a new inspection cycle under a framework which is likely to change. Therefore, inspection of children’s centres has been suspended pending the outcome of the consultation.102

However, when the Department confirmed that the review would not take place, inspections of children’s centres were not reinstated.103

82.We have heard a huge amount about the positive effects of children’s centres on children’s life chances. We recommend that the Department for Education should resurrect their review of children’s centres and develop a wider, comprehensive strategy for provision of high quality and effective early years services. In order to create this wider strategy, the DfE should explore promoting family hubs as a wider model for provision of integrated services.

83.We recommend that Ofsted inspections of children’s centres should be reinstated.

84.We are pleased that the Leader of the House of Commons is chairing a cross-government working group reviewing how to improve the support available to families in the period around childbirth to the age of 2. We urge the Leader and her working group to be ambitious and radical with their recommendations. We look forward to the findings of the review and urge the Prime Minister to listen carefully to, and act upon, the findings of the Leader’s review.

64 Rt Hon Frank Field MP (LIF0045)

65 Science and Technology Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2017–19, Evidence-based early-years intervention, HC 506, para 51

68 Association of School and College Leaders, Life chances inquiry

79 EasyPeasy (LIF0018)

80 SHINE Trust, ‘SHINE launches early years fund in the North’; Education Committee visit, 4 September 2018

82 BBC Early Years Language and Literacy Initiative (LIF0069); Education Committee visit, 4 September 2018

83 Q154 (Fourth Industrial Revolution, HC 1007)

84 Qq154–155 (Fourth Industrial Revolution, HC 1007)

95 Sutton Trust (LIF0040)

96 Sutton Trust (LIF0040)

97 Sutton Trust (LIF0040)

98 Action for Children (LIF0046)

99 Sutton Trust (LIF0040); Action for Children (LIF0046)

100 Office of the Children’s Commissioner, Family Hubs: A discussion paper, October 2016

101 Office of the Children’s Commissioner, Family Hubs: A discussion paper, October 2016

Published: 7 February 2019