EEF Blog: The hard lessons of parental engagement
James Turner, the EEF's deputy chief executive, takes a look at parental engagement in their children's education in the light of (1) our publication today of the evaluation report of 'Family Skills' - along with (2) the announcement by the Department for Education this week that the EEF will run a new £5 million Home Learning Environment Fund...
Amongst the batch of independent evaluation reports of EEF-funded projects we are publishing today, one of the most interesting is on the Family Skills programme, which we co-funded with The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy.
The project aimed to improve the literacy and language skills of 4-5 year olds learning English as an additional language (EAL) by providing their parents with weekly sessions with family learning tutors.
This study by NatCen – which received a coveted 4 padlocks out of 5 on our security rating, meaning we have high confidence in its findings – found that the children of parents who were offered the workshops didn’t make any more progress than those whose parents were not.
A key reason for this was that only about one-third of mums and dads attended the sessions at least once: a pity, since the evaluation (cautiously) found that the literacy skills of the children whose parents did turn up improved.
These findings chime with the wider evidence picture on parental engagement – as well as previous studies the EEF has commissioned in this space. Put simply, supporting parents (particularly those who might benefit the most) to commit to these sorts of programmes is really difficult.
Even some of the most elaborate (and therefore expensive) initiatives have failed to get a majority of parents to participate in the programme at a level sufficient to see an impact on their children’s outcomes. (See our 'Big Picture' on parental engagement for more detail.)
It’s tempting to throw up our hands in despair and give up. Parental engagement, despite considerable investment, is too hard a nut to crack and there are other, safer bets to improving outcomes.
The problem is the prize is so great that we simply can’t turn our backs.
“The association between parental engagement and a child’s academic success is well established ... parental engagement is consistently associated with pupils’ success at school ... [but] there is surprisingly little robust evidence about the impact of approaches designed to improve learning through increased parental engagement.”
And we know from other research in the UK and overseas that what happens at home is a major predictor of children’s future outcomes. We focus efforts on schools and nurseries because we have leverage there, but the real action happens beyond the school gates and behind the front door.
So we are delighted that through the government’s £5 million investment in the Home Learning Environment Fund we’ll be able to do more to shed light on the best ways to help parents support their children’s learning.
The focus of the work will be in the crucial early years, but the lessons will be of value to all parts of the education sector. Over the course of the next two years, we hope to fund up to eight new projects, adding to the work the EEF already has underway - including a guidance report on parental engagement due in the autumn.
Despite the urgent need for new, high-quality evidence, this Home Learning Environment Fund has plenty of insights to build on.
For example, our trial of Parenting Academy found that offering financial incentives to attend parenting sessions improved attendance rates.
And while our evaluation of SPOKES found no immediate impact on children’s attainment , there is promise of a longer-term impact which we are exploring further.
Another EEF-funded project, Texting Parents - which aimed to engage parents using text messages - found a positive impact on maths GCSE and a reduction in absenteeism.
Our sister charity the Sutton Trust has also funded the development and pilot evaluation of EasyPeasy, a smartphone app which sends regular game ideas to parents that they can play with their children. The EEF is now testing EasyPasy through a large-scale randomised controlled trial in 120 early years settings.
The Family Skills evaluation contains reasons for optimism, too, beyond the indication that the children of those who did attend the sessions benefited. The vast majority of schools receiving Family Skills said that they would recommend it to other schools, highlighting that it provided a good opportunity to build home–school links.
And there were also lessons for implementation in terms of more time to engage parents before the programme begins and the value of face-to-face activities, with ongoing reminders, as being the most effective way to recruiting and retain parents.
Applications to our Home Learning Environment Fund will open at the end of May and will run until July. We’re looking for high-potential, innovative ideas that are grounded in the evidence and could be scaled up if found to be cost effective. The focus of this Fund will be the north of England, but the ideas can come from anywhere.
So while today’s results give us pause for thought, we have a great opportunity to build more useful evidence of what works in this crucial space.