The quality of parenting and care a child receives determines, to a great extent, their chances in life. What parents do with their children, whether they read with them, talk to them and play with them, has a greater influence on their subsequent intellectual and social development than their parents' occupation, education or income.
But while parents from all social and educational backgrounds can and do provide excellent care, the evidence also suggests that 'children from poorer backgrounds are much less likely to experience a rich home learning environment than children from better-off backgrounds'.
This is one of the key factors perpetuating social inequality. If our work in early years settings is to increase social mobility and give every child a fair chance, we have to make sure we are building positive relationships with parents, involving them in the work we do, listening to their concerns, and sharing expertise and learning with them. Clearly, parents need to understand and value the work that practitioners are doing. This is why we are publishing a parent's guide to the Early Years Foundation Stage.
EYFS GUIDE FOR PARENTS
When Dame Clare Tickell was conducting her independent review of the Early Years Foundation Stage framework, parents told her that they valued it because it provided consistency across the sector. However, we also know that many people, both practitioners and parents, found it cumbersome and bureaucratic.
In response, we have streamlined and simplified the EYFS, for example, by reducing 69 early learning goals to 17. This has a dual benefit: not only will it free up practitioners' time to focus on the areas that are most essential for children's healthy development; it will also be easier for parents to understand. Under the new EYFS, all childcare providers must give parents a brief written report on how well their child is doing when they are two years old. The new guide for parents will help to ensure that parents are aware of the new framework, which will come into force in September.
Such guidance will be particularly important in the context of increasing numbers of parents having access to early education and childcare for their children. Thanks to the new free entitlement, starting in 2013, the most disadvantaged two-year-olds will be eligible for 15 hours a week of free provision. This will rise to around 260,000 children - 40 per cent of two-year-olds - from September 2014.
PARENTING CLASSES FOR ALL
Another opportunity for children's centres to engage parents may be through providing parenting classes. Parents who attend good parenting classes find they can be life-changing, helping them to communicate better with their children and encouraging good behaviour. They often find that their children are better behaved and achieve more at school.
This is why I announced a trial of universal parenting classes, starting this month. It will explore how a national market in classes can be stimulated so that any parent can access a class when they want, to inform and support their parenting.The idea behind universal parenting classes is that seeking support during a child's early years should be as normal - and socially acceptable - as attending an ante-natal class.
Three areas - Middlesbrough, High Peak (Derbyshire), and the London Borough of Camden - will trial universal parenting classes. The classes will reach more than 50,000 parents with children between birth and five years, who will be entitled to a voucher for a course of classes run by experienced providers. An independent evaluation will help us assess how we can best stimulate the market nationally.
We have the chance now to make the early years a force for social change. But that will only happen if it is seen as an integral part of wider services for families, particularly those targeted at the most vulnerable. So if we want to really give every child a fair chance, we must put parents at the centre of what we do.
- HM Government, Opening doors, breaking barriers: a strategy for social mobility 2011