Poorer parents feel patronised by targeted 'school readiness' classes

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New research warns that attempts to ensure all children are 'school ready' is being undermined by targeted support, which alienates disadvantaged families.


The research found 'better-off' parents were invited to activity-led sessions, photo posed by models

  • Families felt stigmatised by being told how to raise their children
  • Targeted support led to mothers dropping out of the school-readiness sessions
  • Research recommends universal support

The study, which explored the help available to improve children’s literacy ahead of starting school in an ‘educationally deprived’ town in the East Midlands, reveals the stark difference in support offered to mothers identified as being in need compared to their better-off peers.

It shows that mothers identified as needing support were invited to attend children’s centre courses where they were made the focus of teaching, whereas ‘better-off’ families were invited to sessions designed to engage children and enhance their learning through singing and movement.

For example, for those identified as being in need, mothers were offered ‘instruction’ on how best to prepare their children for school. During the sessions, they were given handouts detailing the knowledge they needed, as well as questions and tasks to complete while there.

This approach actually alienated mothers, with those attending saying it felt like they were at school or being ‘taught a lesson’, reveals the research. One mother commented that one professional was like a ‘school mistress’.

In contrast, at the classes for ‘better-off’ families, mothers and their children were encouraged to interact and experience what was on offer together to ‘enhance their learning’ and increase their ‘school readiness’.

The research, carried out by a University of Nottingham PhD student Helen Smith, found that offering targeted support to disadvantaged mothers had the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than helping to develop the skills children need to start Reception, it led to them being less ‘school ready’.

The findings showed a targeted approach:

  • pushed some mothers away as they felt like they were being told how to raise their children
  • stigmatised families as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘deficient’, leading to many shunning the support
  • many of the sessions had low attendance - a number of those who started the course, left before it finished
  • emphasised the idea that processionals know better about educating children, leading to a lack of engagement at home.

Commenting on the findings, Mrs Smith said, ‘It became clear that school readiness was a concern for many of the mothers and professionals in my study. However, the way the support was offered to mothers was different depending on the settings they went to. This was perpetuating, rather than reducing, educational inequalities.

‘The way support was offered in the children’s centres seemed to be alienating parents from engaging. Some mothers did not subscribe to the idea that they needed to be "taught" a lesson.

‘When my children were small, I was able to benefit from the universal provision of services in children's centres where I lived. However, austerity measures have meant huge reductions in funding to local authorities, which have resulted in them having to closely target particular families. I hadn't realised that this might cause unintentional consequences, such as stigma and poor attendance. Combined with the closure of many children's centres and libraries nationally, this means that parents are receiving less support than ever.’

She added, ‘I hope that my research will help policy-makers and service providers better organise community resources so that children can encounter a more level playing field when they start school and parents can feel less anxious about how best to support their children.’

The research was funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Doctoral Training School in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham.

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