Children's centres must sharpen focus on parenting to boost child development

Catherine Gaunt
Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Parenting and improving parents' lives should be given as much focus as children's health and development, according to new guidance for children's centres.

Drawing on research evidence about children’s early development, the Institute of Health Equity has published a framework to identify key priorities for children’s centres.

The outcomes framework aims to give practical guidance to children’s centres about how they use resources, and to support them to evaluate what they are doing and whether it works, as well as contribute to the ongoing policy debate.

Earlier this year, IHE research by local authority area, showed that only 59 per cent of children are achieving a good level of development at the age of five. The report also builds on the work undertaken by the 2010 Marmot Review, Fair Society, Healthy Lives, into what to do to reduce health inequalities.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, director of the UCL Institute for Healthy Equity, said, ‘Only 59 per cent of children at age five are classified as having a good level of development.

‘That’s really shocking, that means 41 per cent of children in the country on average at age five are ranked as not having a good level of early childhood development.

‘That really matters. We know on an international scale we do badly on these measures and we know that not having a good level of early childhood development predicts what happens in later life, predicts performance at school, whether you become one of the one million who are not in education, work or training, predicts what sort of job you can have and predicts the magnitude of health inequalities later in life. It means we’re not doing well as a country.’

He also said that it was important to note that how well children develop follows a social gradient.

‘In other words, it’s not just the most deprived, where fewer than 50 per cent achieve a good level of development at the age of five that should be the issue, but it’s a graded relation.’

‘The lower the status in society, the greater the deprivation, the worse the outcome. At the other end, the greater the affluence, the less deprivation, the better early child development.’

But he said that the report emphasised that it was not just about a set of problems confined to those at the bottom.

People in the middle were doing worse than people at the top, he said, and that the UK was doing worse than other comparable countries in terms of child development.

Sir Michael said that 'a universalist approach’ was the right way forward, because it was ‘a graded phenomenon.’

'Reading to children every day makes a big difference'

Research from the Millennium Cohort study showed that 20 per cent of parents surveyed denied that it was important to talk to or cuddle a three-year-old child and that follows the social gradient.

Whether children have social and emotional difficulties also ‘follows the social gradient,’ so that there are worse outcomes for the poorest children, Sir Michael said.

But he added,  ‘When we take account of parenting activities we reduce the social gradient in social and emotional difficulties by about half.

‘The fact that we statistically can reduce the social gradient by half means that these parenting activities are really important.'

There was evidence that there were simple things that all parents could do to reduce inequalities.

‘And they are not very complicated. The sort of things you imagine parents would do with children - playing, singing, cuddling, all those nice things, and that reduces the social gradient by half.’

Reading to children every day makes a big difference to them, he said.

In the bottom fifth of the poorest families, MCS research showed that just over 40 per cent of parents read to their children daily, whereas for those in the top fifth of wealthiest families, around 80 per cent of parents read to their children every day.

Sir Michael said, ‘We don’t simply blame parents for being bad parents. We don’t point the finger and say you’re a bad parent we look at the lives parents are able to live that impacts on their ability to be good parents.’

For example, he said, the impact of poverty, problems with housing, or being a working mother.

The report looks at children, parenting and parents’ lives and proposes 21 outcomes for children’s centres.

For children’s health and development, the outcomes are based on children’s physical development, social and emotional development, cognitive development and communication and language.

Gerry Allen, area children’s centre manager, from Knowsley, Merseyside said, ‘Children’s centres are different beasts in different local authority areas.’

He said that while parents know what a school is, children’s centres vary.

‘What we’ve been crying out for is something that will enable us all to work to something consistently, which will enable comparison, to know that Knowsley is doing well compared to Northumberland or Camden.’

He added, ‘We’re fighting hard to find our place at the table of mainstream services and in terms of austerity you really do need to make the case for services as well.

'The evidence for our investment needs to be a bit clearer. Working towards a consistent framework will enable us to do that.’

Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, which commissioned the report, said, 'Children’s centres have much to be proud of, but with such a crucial role comes a responsibility to constantly improve and adapt to new demands.
'This framework provides tools to highlight current good practice, strengthen the already huge potential of children’s centres and build in vital monitoring which serves the public and those designing future services.
'We are delighted that the highly respected expertise of Professor Marmot and his team is being brought to children’s centres. We have every faith that this framework will raise the already very high reputation of children’s centres.'




Areas for focus Proposed outcomes 
 Children are developing wellCognitive development1. All children are developing age appropriate skills in drawing and copying 
   2. Children increase the level to which they pay attention during activities and to the people around them 
  Communication and language development3. Children are developing age appropriate comprehension of spoken and written language 
   4. Children are developing age appropriate use of spoken and written language 
  Social and emotional development5. Children are engaging in age appropriate play 
   6. Children have age-appropriate self-management and self-control
  Physical development7. Reduction in the numbers of children born with low birth-weight 
   8. Reducing the number of children with high or low Body Mass index
 Parenting enables development
Creating a safe and healthy environment9. Reduction in the numbers of mothers who smoke during pregnancy
   10. Increase in the number of mothers who breastfeed
  Promoting an active learning environment11. Increased number and frequency of parents regularly talking to their child using a wide range
   12.More parents are reading to their child every day
  Positive parenting13. More parents are regularly engaging positively with their children
   14. More parents are actively listening to their children 
   15. More parents are setting and reinforcing boundaries
 Parent context enables good parenting
Good mental wellbeing16. More parents are experiencing lower levels of stress in their home and in their lives
   17. Increase in the number of parents with good mental wellbeing
   18. More parents have greater levels of support from friends and /or family
  Knowledge and skills19. More parents are improving their basic skills, particularly in numeracy and literacy
    20. More parents are increasing their knowledge and application of good parenting
  Be financially self-supporting 21. Parents are accessing good work or developing the skills needed for employment, particularly those furthest from the labour market

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