Developing the early home learning environment, Trafford MBC

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • Early Years
  • General resources
  • Early Help

Basic details

Organisation submitting example

Trafford MBC

Local authority/local area:

Trafford MBC

The context and rationale

The Trafford Early Home Learning (EHL) Programme was devised in order to address the issue of how to better support parents to develop a positive home learning environment and promote understanding of the impact that this can have on child outcomes. It was recognised that some parents would not access Children’s Centre services where information on developing the home learning environment was available.

Demographics of Trafford
Trafford Council is a Metropolitan Borough of Greater Manchester. In 2008, the population of children aged between 0 and 4 years was 13,782. Education outcomes for the children in the Early Years Foundation Stage are well above national average (joint 3rd nationally in 2011), with 70% of children achieving a good level of development. Children in the 30% Super Output Areas (SOA) achieve on average higher than such children nationally. Data from the 2010 School Census suggests that 82% of Trafford school children were white. The most recent national estimates of ethnicity confirm a trend to greater diversity in Trafford. 

Trafford has a strong economy with low levels of unemployment and is the only borough, other than City of Manchester in Greater Manchester, to be above the national average for weekly income. In 2009, taking Trafford as a whole, 77.2% of adults were economically active. 15 out of the 138 Lower Level Super Output Areas in Trafford are found to be within the 20% most deprived and 6 are amongst the 10% most deprived in England. 

The idea 
Developing the early home learning environment as described in this report began in Spring 2011. The idea initially came as a strategic directive to the children’s centre teachers (CCT) following the publication of Grasping the nettle: early intervention for children, families and communities, C4EO, The Foundation Years: Preventing poor children becoming poor adults; the report of the independent review on poverty and life chances by the Rt Hon Frank Field MP and Early intervention: the next steps - an independent report to Her Majesty’s Government by Graham Allen MP. We were asked to devise an early intervention programme which would involve direct work in family homes with parents and their children for a period of no more than twelve weeks.

Our starting point was to acknowledge that parents are children’s first educators and that, in order to meet children’s centre priorities, we needed to identify families whose children were at risk of low achievement.

The children’s centre teachers worked together to plan a programme which would meet the following key aims:

- support parents to develop a positive home learning environment 
- support parents as they begin to understand how their children develop through fun play and learning activities
- encourage parents to practise and develop their own skills, enabling them to continue to support their children’s learning and development at home 

The overarching aim of the programme is to raise parental awareness that certain activities are crucial and timely intervention can give a child the best start.

We developed a framework for an early home learning programme (EHL) over a short period of time following much wider reading and research into existing good practice. Two texts were particularly useful, firstly the pioneering work by the Pen Green Centre for children and families, as documented in Involving Parents in their Children’s Learning, 2nd ed., by Margaret Whalley et al (2008) and secondly, the key messages from research, practice and parents in Early Home Learning Matters: A Good Practice Guide by Kim Roberts (2009) on behalf of the Family and Parenting Institute.Families in the Foundation Years - Evidence Pack (DfE 2011) was also particularly useful.

Overview of the programme
The early home learning programme takes place over twelve weeks, ten sessions in the home and two visits in the community, the first visit is to the local library and the second is a low cost half-day trip in the wider locality using public transport. The timing of these visits is flexible, although families seem to be ready for the library visit around week five and the longer trip around week nine or ten.
A weekly session lasts for around an hour per week. Some flexibility on the length of session is needed from both parties in order to allow play experiences to develop and very much depends on variable factors, such as how the parent and child are feeling that day and the stage the parents are at in terms of supporting their child’s learning. 

Identification and referral
Families are identified through the children’s centre referral process and either:
o the family is already receiving family support or
o the child is identified by the Health Visitor as being at risk of developmental delay.
The children who are referred live in a 10%, 20% or 30% area of deprivation.

ECM outcomes met through the EHL programme

Enjoy & achieve
Practitioners ‘role model’ activities whilst playing with parents and children. Parents can develop many skills to support their child’s learning in this way. Parents begin to understand how they can increase their child’s learning and development through fun practical play activities. They can borrow the activities to practise and repeat during the week and benefit from related gifts so that they can recreate activities in the future. For example, when a family make play dough together they will be given an airtight container for storage, a rolling pin, a selection of cutters, a recipe card and play dough ideas to try at home. Through developing trusting relationships, parents begin to gain more self-confidence and are better able to take the initiative when playing with their child.

Staying safe
Parents who take part in the EHL programme begin to understand their child’s developmental stage; they also begin to understand and, if necessary, receive support to manage their child’s behaviour. If parents need further support they can be signposted to The Incredible Years parenting programme delivered through the children’s centre.

Achieving economic well-being
Parents who develop confidence to better support their child’s learning may begin to think about their own learning needs, and are encouraged to access training and employment workshops provided by the children’s centre and local partners.

Making a positive contribution
Parents who develop self-confidence and who go on to be independent learners are more likely to be able to make informed decisions and take part in the life of their community, for example, they may choose to become a volunteer in their local school or children’s centre.

Being healthy
Parents who consider the role of physical activity and exercise when planning activities for their child are beginning to contribute to a healthier lifestyle. Further information on healthy eating can be accessed through signposting to dietetic support at the children’s centre.

School readiness linked to the early home learning environment and children’s centre priorities
Research (Desforges and Abouchaar, 2003; Feinstein et al, 2004) shows that supporting parents to improve the learning that goes on at home will have a major impact on child outcomes, including school readiness, attainment and achievement up to the age of at least 16.

Further research evidence (Gutman and Feinstein, 2007; Sylva et al., 2004; and Desforges and Abouchaar, 2003) suggests that parental involvement in early learning has a greater impact on children’s well-being and achievement than any other factor and that supporting parents to help them provide a positive home learning environment is therefore a vital part of improving outcomes for children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 
Hunt. S. et al (2011) Provider influence on the early home learning environment (EHLE) 
Our priorities as children’s centres are 

Enjoy and achieve
• NI 72 Achievement of at least 78 points across the Early Years Foundation Stage with at least 6 in each of the scales in Personal Social and Emotional Development and Communication, Language and Literacy.
• NI 92 Narrowing the gap between the lowest achieving 20% in the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile and the rest.

The practice

Starting point
Initial discussions are held to establish family background and reason for referral. This involves the Assistant Head of Centre, the children’s centre teacher and a children’s centre worker, if applicable.

The CCTs were given a budget to purchase high quality, open ended resources. These are used to role model supportive play strategies, including the known critical activities across the birth to five age range in line with EYFS requirements. The majority of children who are referred into the EHL programme are aged between 18 and 36 months; (we can access other children’s centre resources within the birth to five age range in addition to those we have bought specifically). The core resources purchased include: 

• a plain coloured rug which is used to define the play space within the home
• a nursery rhyme book 
• play dough resources - dough is made with the family and a play dough set is given as a present which includes, a roller, cutters, recipe card, activity ideas card and an airtight container
• heuristic play resources using low cost and household items
• collections of baskets and household boxes and tins to explore filling and emptying
• small world resources - farm, wild animals, dinosaurs, garage, cars, all of which can be loaned
• role play items - kitchen, teaset, play food, dolls which can be bathed, baby bath, feeding and changing resources 
• construction aids - tree blocks, junk modelling, duplo
• chunky lacing and threading
• messy play activities - paint, gloop, pasta, jelly bath 
• mark making - large paper, drawing pads, chunky crayons, chunky chalks, chunky pencils and felt pens, all of which can be taken away, brushes of various thickness to use with paint or water indoors and out, A3 white boards and markers
• outdoor play – role modelled games and activities, loan of children’s centre sports bags
• den making – using Communication Friendly Spaces Bags for Families as a starting point, the bags can be loaned
• squidgy letters, numbers and shapes
• giant A4 size calculator
• baking utensils and ingredients which can then be taken home.

There is supporting information for all these resources and this information can be translated into the most common languages in Trafford. Some resources have been duplicated in order to lend to families and some key resources were purchased as gifts enabling families to replicate activities.

Introductory visit
This is made either by the Assistant Head of Centre or the children’s centre worker. On this visit parents are asked to complete the home learning index (HLI) which indicates the type and frequency of activities already happening in the home (this is used as a comparative measure of impact when completed again at the end of twelve weeks). The HLI includes the identified critical activities and experiences for children as highlighted in Families in the Foundation Years - Evidence Review, DfE (2011). During this visit, a suitable day and time are agreed, taking into consideration other factors such as sleep routines, day care sessions, school pickup/drop-offs and family commitments. Parents are asked about their child’s interests and if there are any activities they would like to try with their child but feel they need support to deliver. Parents are also given information about community groups they may like to attend with their child, for example the local Stay & Play session. Parental comments are recorded indicating hopes and aspirations for their children and what they as adults hope to gain from the programme.

Subsequent visits
These include a combination of the child’s interests, parental interests and using children’s centre teacher observations to introduce guided activities. The routine of the session becomes established for example, the TV is turned off, the play rug is put on the floor, parents and children are invited to sit on the rug and the session is ready to begin. During the session, parents are encouraged to participate in their child’s play. The children’s centre teacher will role model as needed by joining in, explaining, commentating and supporting the parent’s knowledge of their child’s development. A range of ‘Top Tip’ refrigerator notes and additional information can be left as a reminder of good practice at the end of the session. 

The content of each session is planned with a degree of flexibility in order to follow the child’s interests but we also aim to include:

• a story activity using developmentally appropriate books and character props, some of which can be kept
• a rhyme session building up a repertoire over a number of weeks with a nursery rhyme book as a gift
• opportunities to mark make and use letters and numbers throughout play with gifts of paper, drawing pads, crayons and chalks
• a variety of developmentally appropriate play activities, using resources from within the home and from the children’s centre.

Throughout the EHL programme, parents are encouraged to think of activities they would like to try at home but feel they need support to provide. In this way, parents gain a sense of ownership and the activities can be planned into future sessions. For example, one parent asked to make fairy cakes with her daughter, another asked for physical activity ideas to use outdoors with her son and a recurring request is messy play which parents are usually happy to try when given support to organise and manage.

The strength of the EHL programme is the opportunity for the children’s centre teachers to tailor-make sessions which are uniquely suitable for a child and its family using knowledge of critical activities as a basis. 

At the end of the EHL programme, we book a follow-on session for around six weeks time. We have found that parents value this opportunity to catch up and are eager to tell us what they have been doing with their child. Further follow-on sessions can be planned if needed.

Visits are planned on a weekly basis to include: 
o the focus activity for the session
o anecdotal and observational information 
o a learning journey to illustrate the child’s learning and development for example a child displaying schematic play such as filling, emptying and transporting will have the opportunity to explore this using a variety of mediums over a period of several weeks. This will be documented through photographs, links to EYFS and links to the Leuven scales of well-being and involvement; 
o parental comments
o next steps. 
The learning journeys are compiled into a memory book for each family. 

Tracking - who may be involved?
A multi-agency team approach is used within the children’s centre. Any combination of the following may be involved: speech & language therapist, dietician, health visitor, assistant head of centre, family support worker, social care, day care setting, parents, grandparents and sometimes, wider family. As each case is unique, the data collected will vary from family to family.

Tracking children’s progress
Home Learning Index – baseline and exit
EYFS ages and stages
Learning Journeys
Early Communication and Language check list
Links with day care setting to share observations and achievements
Conversations with parents. 

The above information is shared with all multi-agency team members who support the child and family at children’s centre review meetings/case conferences.

Achievements so far

Developing the early home learning environment was set up as a twelve-month pilot study. 

Qualitative data
Case study evidence shows that parental awareness of their child’s development has improved. More time is spent on crucial activities and parents have made some significant changes that have the potential to improve outcomes for their child, for example:
o Providing daily activities such as reading stories, looking at books and singing nursery rhymes and songs, and opportunities to mark make, draw and count
o Spending time on the floor each day playing and interacting together
o Joining the local library and visiting regularly
o Playing outdoors and visiting the local park regularly
o Visiting places of interest in the community
o Accessing funding for two-year-olds
o Accessing universal services, for example stay & play, toddler gym
o Making first steps towards accessing adult learning

Throughout the twelve weeks, parental comments are gathered through conversations rather than questionnaires or interviews. This is less prescriptive and offers the parent a safe way to speak freely and, as a result, parents share their thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears and aspirations as we go along. The opportunity to be reflective and the resulting anecdotal evidence is a valuable insight into how a parent feels about many aspects of the EHL programme. It enables the CCT to view the programme from the parent’s perspective and, in many ways, this evidence tracks the parental journey throughout the twelve weeks. For example:

‘I’m learning more things about what a two year old is meant to do. It’s fun to watch him filling and emptying and carrying and I’ll know for the baby now, honestly I’ll know what to expect when he’s two’

‘I didn’t know nursery rhymes before, I tell my sister in law to sing rhymes to her little one every day like I do, we sing all the time’

Parental comments six months after completing their EHL programme show:

’We go to the library about once a month, I wouldn’t have gone if you hadn’t taken me, I wouldn’t have had the confidence, I still practise books at night to read to the boys in the day’

‘I still play on the carpet everyday and we sing rhymes and songs and have stories loads of times in the day’ 

‘My uncle and I take the kids out every Wednesday, we go to the park, last week we went to The Lowry, we go on the bus and it gets us out for a while and there’s different things to see’

Quantitative data
The following measures are used in the short term.
o The Home learning Index (HLI) is completed at the beginning and end of the programme – it is based on, but is not identical to, the HLI from the ‘Growing up in Scotland’ (2010) longitudinal study. It uses non-metric frequency measures to code answers; at times we have also found it useful to add comments which reflect a parent’s effort and progress. The baseline HLI provides an indication of the frequency of the critical activities at the beginning of the EHL programme and an overall impression of the existing home learning environment. It is used to identify parent’s strengths in supporting their child’s learning and development and to identify gaps in the child’s experience. The baseline data can be compared to the exit data at the end of twelve weeks to give a measurement of progress and impact. 
o EYFS ages and stages of development, this helps us to identify whether additional support is required – as the home learning programme is of relatively short duration, the EYFS Links are added to the child’s weekly learning journey. An EYFS ages and stages summary sheet is used throughout to highlight and date evidence as observed during the session. This is used to form a baseline over the twelve-week duration and progress is shared with the day care setting if applicable

Combining the data
A home learning evidence folder is compiled for each family. This contains a copy of the comparative home learning index, weekly session plans, learning journeys, EYFS tracking data, comments, questions, solutions and other anecdotal information gathered throughout the twelve weeks. This evidence contributes to a greater understanding of the family. Whilst the HLI provides an impact measure, it cannot provide the story of the family behind the quantitative data. We believe that the rich description provided by the qualitative data is just as important, in order to more fully understand the challenges faced by the family and the level of support needed.

New opportunities
After a visit to the local library, one parent admitted that she had never been in a library before. She also realised that her own level of literacy was having an impact on her child as she was reluctant to read books to him. As a result, she was supported to enrol on an adult learning course to improve her own literacy skills. This has given her the confidence to read daily with her child and visit the local library regularly. She has also begun to read for herself. Finding time is a challenge but she has already noticed an improvement in her ability to read and complete forms since she started her college course. 

This parent was recently invited to take part in filming for the BBC Skillswise website where she was given the opportunity to make a two-minute film as part of a series of inspirational stories. Her own amazing story began with her first ever library visit when she and her child took part in the early home learning programme through her local children’s centre. She has now almost completed her first adult learning course at the local college and plans to enrol on an ICT course next.

Another parent asked the CCT if she would like to read some short stories she had written. The stories were wonderful and through conversation, it emerged that this parent has written stories since she was a child, in fact she has a suitcase full of them. Whilst at school, she was told that she had a talent for writing and was asked to publish but declined due to peer pressure at the time. Now she has revealed that publishing her stories is still her ambition but she needs some support to find out how to do this. She would also like to access a local creative writing group. The children’s centre is currently supporting this parent to achieve her goals.


Barriers and challenges
Identification of families: each family is unique and levels of engagement vary. Although we have worked with a relatively small number of families to date, we have found that families with a high level of need and a chaotic lifestyle are less likely to complete the programme.

Initial costs involved purchase of key resources for the programme. However, this could be replicated with minimal cost using household objects and shared resources from the children’s centre.

Risk assessment
This is carried out by the assistant head of centre prior to the EHL programme starting. 

Learning from experience - Hot Tips for others:

• The first few visits are very important to establish relationships, routines and the aims of the programme.
• Work hard at developing rapport; it can take a few weeks to get to know each other but establishing a reciprocal working relationship between the parent, child and children’s centre teacher is really the key to the success of the EHL programme. 
• Personal attributes such as openness, honesty and communicativeness are essential. Make eye contact, smile, be encouraging and show that you are pleased to be there.
• Work equally hard at developing trust, turn up when you say you will, try not to cancel, demonstrate genuine interest during the session and remember to encourage and praise the parent as well as the child. 
• Allow enough time to plan, prepare and document the session, as this is crucial to ensure that the programme progresses.
• It is important to know the team around the child and work closely with them, for example, key workers in day care and health visitors.
• You need a degree of flexibility as things don’t always go according to plan and you need to be able to adapt and respond to whichever situation you might find. 
• Access relevant information and/or training to better inform your practice, for example domestic abuse training enables the practitioner to understand the impact this can have on family life and can help put the family in context

Key leadership behaviour characteristics
The following core behaviours have been identified as part of successful elements of leadership (see National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services/C4EO (2011). Resourceful leadership: how directors of children’s services improve outcomes for children. Full report. Nottingham: NCSL see ). 

Trafford MBC identified the following behaviours as key to the transformation of their service:

• openness to possibilities - This was a learning process for the Children’s Centre teachers. We were fortunate to have a budget allowing us to purchase resources to use within the home and resources specifically purchased to give as gifts. We decided that the most effective way to support parents was through a high degree of flexibility allowing for a tailor-made programme for each family.
• the ability to collaborate – The CCT works within a small team of five. We worked closely together to research, plan and deliver a home learning programme which is both suitable for individual families and measurable to meet the children’s centre outcomes.
• demonstrating a belief in team and people – The CCT team support each other and work towards the same goal of improving outcomes for children. We also work closely with the wider multi-agency team to ensure a holistic approach which best meets the needs of the family.
• personal resilience and tenacity – Personal qualities are important, not all families want to engage in the same way, different styles of engagement work for different people. Persistence is sometimes needed in order to engage with the family and to provide a partnership programme which works for them.
• the ability to create and sustain commitment across a system –The CCT team are committed to the home learning programme .The opportunity to tailor-make the programme with the family makes for a degree of variety and interest and no two programmes are the same. We share good practice and can draw on ideas from each other, whilst remaining open to ideas and improved ways to deliver this intervention.
• focusing on results – Using a quantitative measure such as the Home Learning Index provides evidence of the effectiveness of the programme through comparative measures which show any improvement in the frequency of critical activities taking place in the home. The qualitative measures in the form of learning journeys, comments, informal conversations and comments, provide the story behind the HLI. The combined data shows the effectiveness of the programme within the context of the family and provides direct evidence of potential improvement in the outcomes for children. 
• the ability to simplify – This programme is straightforward, not overly prescriptive and has a high degree of flexibility to provide the best opportunity to develop reciprocal working partnerships with families and maximise opportunities to engage. Timescales can be flexible and where a family cannot accommodate the CCT in their home but are willing to engage, the programme can take place at the children’s centre or another agreed venue.
• the ability to learn continuously – Developing the early home learning environment as an early intervention strategy was a new initiative within Trafford. This required research into existing good practice before we agreed how the Trafford project should look. The HLI (from Growing up in Scotland) was adapted for use within the project but, following discussion at the end of the pilot, this has been adapted and improved to provide a more accurate measure. 

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