Helping Parents to Parent
• Official data reveals that in the last decade more than 2.5 million children in England, including over 580,000 children known to be eligible for free school meals, had not reached the Government’s definition of a good level of development at the age of five.49
• This is particularly concerning given the strength of the evidence on the potential for the early years to have a lasting impact on children’s outcomes, and consequently their prospects for social mobility. By the time that students receive their GCSE results, around 32 per cent of the variation in performance can be predicted based on indicators observed at or before age five.184
• In addition, research suggests that parenting has a significant influence on children’s outcomes. Therefore, to improve social mobility in the United Kingdom it is important that public policy does not shy away from the issue of parenting and what the Government could do to support families in the earliest years of a child’s life to help all parents to be the best parents that they can be.
• This literature review was commissioned by the Social Mobility Commission to explore the extent to which public policy levers can influence what parents do and what those policy levers might be. While there is some good evidence on targeted programmes for parents or for children with specific or identified needs, this review brings together the evidence on the extent to which and how public policy approaches could help a wider group of parents to parent.
• Under this category of what parents do, we consider their direct parenting behaviours and the factors which influence parenting. We then examine the evidence on international universal or large scale interventions that aim to address what parents do in the earliest years of their child’s life and consider which, if any, of these have the capacity to influence parenting and improve outcomes for children.
• There is evidence to demonstrate that public policy can have an impact on parenting behaviours, and some of the associated factors that influence parenting, in order to achieve positive outcomes for children. In particular, the research suggests that the following parenting behaviours/factors appear to have the most potential to be influenced via public policy: parenting style; the creation of a supportive home learning environment; relationships within the family; and parental stress and mental health.
• In addition, the most successful parenting interventions appear to include a focus on equipping parents with a greater understanding of child development (e.g. All Children in Focus in Sweden), developing parental confidence in their role as parents (e.g. Parents as Teachers in USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), or on providing assistance to parents to co-parent (whereby both parents become actively involved and cooperate in the child’s development and upbringing; e.g. Family Foundations in USA) and reduce stress and tension within the family (e.g. Parenting Shops in Belgium).
• Some governments are beginning to approach universal parental support as a public health issue. Although there is a lack of robust evaluation for many universal parenting interventions at present, it appears that this approach is starting to normalise the concept of support for parenting, leading to success in engaging parents (for example, with Parenting Shops in Belgium or The Family Support Programme in Stenungsund, Sweden).
• Furthermore, to reduce the stigma associated with parenting interventions and to encourage parents to seek help and support if they need it, several of the interventions delivered ‘targeted’ services under the umbrella term ‘universal’. This resulted in enhanced parental participation. A localised approach can also help to enhance parental engagement in parenting programmes.
• Home visiting programmes, alongside services delivered to groups of parents, appear to have moderate to high levels of success. Highly trained and skilled practitioners are crucial to the successful delivery of parenting interventions. Some successful interventions recruited practitioners from a broad range of fields, including nurses, social workers and teachers, to deliver parenting support.
• There is a dearth of longitudinal and follow-up studies in the evidence, which limits long-term findings. Hence, much of the assessment of the success of parenting interventions is based on their short-term gains. The Government should commission further research to address the gaps in the evidence on this issue and there is a need to develop a robust and consistent tool for the evaluation of parenting interventions.