North (11 months) and mum Lorna photographed at home in Bristol

Home is where the story begins

Ask any parent and they’ll know – their child is learning and developing in front of their very eyes from the moment they emerge into the world. Their first smile, their first steps, their first attempts at sounds and words. Parents play the critical role in helping their child reach those milestones and beyond.

Save the Children’s work in the early years across the UK is rooted in a firm recognition of the power that parents have in supporting their children’s early learning. What happens at home through child and parent play has a huge impact. The parents we work with tell us they need and want help in identifying how they can best support their children’s early learning. It’s also clear that living on a low income shrinks and pressurises the space for this. They tell us that it can create anxiety and stress, making it harder to find the space in their daily routine for these critical activities, even though they want to. The daily grind of living on a low-income makes it harder for parents to afford the toys, resources, and have access to activities outside and inside the home that should be part of every child’s learning.

Sadly, the evidence backs this up. One in four children, and almost half of the poorest, fall behind in their learning before they even start school. Children who start behind, tend to stay behind – which is what makes it so important that Damian Hinds, the Secretary of State for Education, used his first major speech on social mobility this week to focus on what happens in families’ homes to tackle the early learning gap. For far too long, government ministers have felt that talking about learning in the home has been off limits, venturing too far into territory that sounds like lecturing parents on how to raise their children.

A passion for social mobility

Since he was elected as an MP, Damian Hinds has spoken about how improving children’s chances of getting on in life, starting from the early years, is his number one political priority. He has written fervently about the critical importance of closing the gap in the poorest children’s school readiness and this week again stressed its importance to the progress of society as a whole, as well as for “the ones who start with the odds most stacked against them.”  This commitment is good to see, and clearly action is needed; the government need to demonstrate the progress they say they want to see.

It’s well established in research that the quality of the learning environment at home has a significant, if not the most, influence on children’s early development. There is no fixed recipe, but studies have pointed to some key ingredients that help the most. For example, many say that great home learning environments are spaces that stimulate thinking and learning through the things in that home and everyday experiences. What children do with their parents and the quality of their play and interactions are hugely important.

New ideas in motion

Save the Children has been raising the importance of these topics for some time and working with parents to develop smart ways to make a difference. Through Wonder Words, we have been using approaches based in behavioural science to develop ‘nudges’ that make it easier for parents and carers to support their child’s early language development, at key ordinary moments – bed time, bath time, nappy changing  and so on. We’re developing and testing different ways of giving parents frequent, engaging and timely prompts to chat more with their children, using popular brands and baby products that you would find in any family home, and platforms like Facebook Messenger. Parents who have tried out our Facebook Chat Bot prototype, changing mats, and bath toys with influencing messages have told us it has prompted them to talk and play with their babies more at these key bonding times.

On top of that, our programme “Building Blocks” aims to help parents create a home that can support their children’s early learning and development. It is being developed and tested with several local authorities later this year. We will provide toys, books, learning resources, and advice for parents, as well as essential household items such as cots, push-chairs, storage furniture, and cookers that help to support family routine and learning, helping parents and carers support their children’s learning in the ways they want to.

We need an approach that understands the reality of families living on low incomes

This combination of resources is critical to minimising the impact that living on a low income has on early learning. But we all know that interventions like this are only part of the solution. Political will to engage with the challenge is also vital. There is no silver bullet for the complexity of this challenge. It requires a response that reflects the range of drivers that enable the differences in children’s early learning. This means naming them and addressing them head on – disadvantage, family stressors, quality affordable and accessible childcare options, access to speech and language support, and rising child poverty. Last week’s Living Standards audit report published by the Resolution Foundation claims child poverty may have risen to its highest rate in the last 15 years, despite high levels of employment. This needs to be addressed.

Without tackling these drivers, we will struggle to close the early learning gap.  The home learning environment is a critical space and it is great to see a commitment to action.

This needs to be part of a societal change in how we view the early years and the priority we place on giving parents the support they need. Across politics, government, business, and wider society, we must both recognise its importance and identify the action that each of us can take. This week’s announcement is a welcome step on that journey, and we look forward to working with the DfE to support this work. It needs to be the first step on a journey of action to give all children the best start.

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