Parents Supporting Parents – Transforming Early Years at Reading Borough Council

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • Early Years
  • General resources

Basic details

Organisation submitting example

Reading Borough Council

Local authority/local area:

Reading Borough Council

The context and rationale

This example describes how Reading Borough Council has worked with parents to re-design its service provision in one of its children’s centres, in particular using volunteers as part of the workforce. The project used tools such as ethnographic research to capture the lived experience of parents and prototyping to re-design the new service as part of a Transforming Early Years programme supported by NESTA and The Innovation Unit.

As part of the Transforming Early Years pilot run by NESTA and The Innovation Unit, Reading Borough Council have re-designed the service provision at Sure Start Whitley Children’s Centre in South Reading. The council has worked with the parents to identify their challenges and design solutions and established Parents Supporting Parents, a peer mentoring scheme. Parents in the community are trained to use their experience to support new parents either as a Meeter-greeter, Buddy or Mentor.

Over the last three years, Reading’s Directorate of Education and Children’s Services has improved performance and achieved cost savings of 12%. However, staff realised that delivering efficiencies in how we currently operate would not be enough; we needed to move from traditional models to more radical solutions. The evidence of the last 10 years, especially around Reading’s inequality gap, shows that although we are doing well and staff are skilled and committed, we need to change the way we work if we are to continue to move forward successfully. Reading is looking to shift the balance of power from professionals to families as a route to further improving outcomes and efficiency. This means focusing on radical solutions that will tackle the real needs of families as an alternative to traditional service responses.

Reading Borough Council submitted a bid to be part of the Transforming Early Years pilot and in May 2010 was chosen as one of six localities to be involved in looking at radical transformation in Early Years services. Based on examples of radical innovation in service delivery from across the world, the premise is that radically re-thinking how services are currently delivered can offer savings of up to 30% and deliver better outcomes. Reading’s project focused on the re-modelling of the children’s centre provision in Whitley, South Reading – chosen because of the high levels of deprivation and awareness that the children’s centre was not reaching as many families as it should, particularly the most deprived.

The approach is to completely re-think the model for children’s centres so that they can become genuine community-led hubs providing services that meet needs more effectively. Reading will engage with parents and the wider community in an ongoing dialogue about needs and responses, with communities determining requirements as well as contributing to delivery.

This approach focuses on the long-term cost-benefit savings of effective early intervention, providing universal access at a point where parents and families are pre-disposed to positive change. Reading is building on the learning from this work as a building block for further service transformation across the wider Council, building on the commitment to increasingly shift the balance of power from professionals to service users as a route to creating capable communities.

The project aimed to reconfigure radically different Early Years services that reduce the need for longer term and ‘higher end’ intervention. This means changing the systems and processes around service delivery and design, to ensure that the families who require the most support are able to create solutions that meet their needs. To make these aims a reality, the parents have developed linked ideas of parenting and volunteering as a route to de-stigmatising access to co-located services. The short term piece of work relates to the idea of developing peer parenting support. This aims to increase families’ social capital and self-esteem, their knowledge and take-up of services and to enable them to provide quality support to peers. Together these interventions will provide training and volunteering opportunities for parents, whilst enabling professionals to learn more about the needs of families and break the cycle of intergenerational risk. 

These new services will be informed by Feinstein’s work on predictive screening, and will maximise opportunities for families to develop skills in five key areas that improve their resilience. Critically, a screening tool we have developed, carried out at the point of midwifery booking, will allow all families the opportunity to take up services significantly earlier.


• In three years all 13 children’s centres will be remodelled based on the learning from the Innovations Programme. 
• Expert parents in the centres will ‘pull in’ professional support when it is needed. 
• A pilot centre will be developed as a community hub where a range of services are provided by other families and by professionals. 
• There will be new customers, both a greater number and a greater range of families using the children’s centre. 
• Families will value peer support and will perceive services, such as parenting programmes, as universally available and relevant to them. 
• Parents will run courses with a valid evidence base and staff will have a greater role in supporting, training and advising volunteers. Staff will also engage in designing, delivering and evaluating services, and have a greater leadership and co-ordination role in relation to individuals and services. 
• There will be improved outcomes for children, including in their transition to school and at Foundation Stage.

The practice

Reading’s work was supported throughout by The Innovation Unit, who provided a strong methodology for the project. The work began by asking professionals to consider the greatest challenge they faced in relation to Reading’s children and families. Ethnographic research focused on understanding the lived experience of parents raising young children in the identified area of South Reading, and was carried out by a range of partners. Professionals from the Council and other agencies were trained to carry out the interviews using a toolkit of questions. 32 families (with 92 children) were interviewed and the research was analysed for common messages. 

From the interviews, the team understood that the challenge we believed we faced was very different from the families’ experiences, deeply challenging the perceptions we held. The key challenge needing to be addressed was changing the way professionals work. We realised that ineffective or inconsistent services can create negative patterns of experience in families which can lead to lack of engagement, and that biased or flawed professional attitudes can contribute to families’ feelings of powerlessness. Often the problem seems to be that the services available are simply offered or accessed too late, addressing problems once they have occurred as opposed to pre-empting them. Families talked of services having a deficit model. At this point, there was a real desire from the team to grasp the opportunity to support change, and to think about how they could provide what families want rather than what professionals tell them they need. For instance the assumption that families need good quality childcare was challenged: 

“We had a huge shock when we interviewed 32 families (92 children) and none of them had ever paid for childcare. Many are doing part-time jobs but they all use sisters and aunts, etc…” 

The team understood that current services can create a negative experience for families who viewed them as often judgemental, unfriendly and intimidating. Parents felt excluded by institutional settings with professional attitudes contributing to families’ feelings of powerlessness leading to lack of engagement. 

The learning informed workshops with parents and a range of professionals to feedback results of the study, gain further input and to develop high level ideas for change. These events identified 3 key areas for further exploration:

• Peer to peer models for delivering parenting support through developing community “expert” parents;
• Time Banking to develop models of mutual support that recognise and reward volunteering and encourage positive behaviour change;
• Development of a community café owned and run by the community for the community. 

The Transforming Early Years programme provided prototyping training for the project team and staff used these new tools and skills to further test and develop these ideas with parents and professionals. An iterative process of testing and refining the prototypes developed through wider and deeper engagement with residents and potential service users was undertaken, and the first idea of a peer support model was chosen to be developed further. A new model of service delivery based on peer parenting and volunteering was blueprinted, with the parents fully inputting into all elements of the new model including volunteer roles, methods for recruiting volunteers, the volunteer training programme and any incentives for volunteering. Graphic facilitation was used to capture their ideas.

The first cohort of 17 volunteers were recruited and trained in Summer 2011. The training covered safeguarding, communication skills, boundaries, and confidentiality. All volunteers start as meeters-and-greeters, welcoming new parents to the children’s centre and supporting sessions and outreach events. The volunteers move on to shadow professionals such as family workers to develop their skills and gain experience, and then take Level 2 training to become buddies on a 1:1 basis with new parents who are referred to the service (those who may not make the threshold for a free 2 year old nursery place for example, but who would like some extra support). Additional training is planned for volunteers to move onto a more intensive supporting mentor role. The second cohort of 21 volunteers was recruited by word-of-mouth alone and began their training in January 2012.

Partners and stakeholders

The project team is led by the Council’s Head of Extended Services and fully supported by a project manager. Other key senior and frontline managers in the organisation make up the cross-cutting project team, along with partners from Probation, Health and the Voluntary Sector. In addition a number of professionals from areas such as health, children’s services and the council’s Thriving Neighbourhoods Team are involved in the work. 

NESTA and The Innovation Unit have provided external support and training through the Transforming Early Years programme.

The volunteer training is provided by New Directions, the Council’s learning and employment service. New Directions has worked with the project team to prototype and produce a learning passport for the volunteers (another suggestion from the parents involved) and it also provides support to the volunteers on options for further education or training.

Achievements so far

The first cohort of volunteers began volunteering in August 2011 (during Quarter 2 of 2011/12). Since then the reach of the children’s centre has increased, including to low-income families, BME groups, and fathers:

                                                  Target      Baseline      Q1       Q2       Q3 
                                                   2011/12    (from 10/11) 

Attendance at South Reading           60%      31.4%       31%      43%      53% 
CCs of children living in 
reach areas since 1st April 

Attendance at South Reading           50%       29.7%       32%       34%       36% 
CCs of those families living 
in 30% lowest SOA from reach

Attendance at South Reading           12%       7.7%       7%       13%       17% 
CC's of fathers living in
reach areas 

Attendance at South Reading           50%       35.8%       36%       39%       44% 
CC's of BME groups living 
in reach areas 

Attendance at South Reading           50%      57.1%       43%       38%       24%* 
CC's of teenage parents 
living in reach areas 

* The reduction in the attendance of teen parents is due to a change to the teen parent group during this quarter. A group is now run by one of the volunteers and attendance is increasing again.

One of the project’s performance measures relates to the future prospects for the volunteers, as improving their own skills and employment prospects was highly important to the parents involved in the design of Parents Supporting Parents. There is an aim for 50% of the volunteers to go onto education, employment or further training. Although it is too early to measure the full outcome of this for the first cohort, three of the volunteers are already engaging in literacy and numeracy courses.

Qualitative Data

The Transforming Early Years work has had a profound impact on both professionals and parents. Staff report feeling their mindset has changed from their experiences: 

“Talking to people who use and want to use our services is vital – not making assumptions but listening to what users are saying, getting them involved in feedback and owning their service. I’ve learned so much, it’s really challenged my thinking and how I work.” Children’s Centre Manager

“Engaging in the ethnographic work was very powerful and provides a really useful methodology for how we might take this direct engagement further into a more systemic process of culture change to deliver greatly improved services with people and not to people.” Senior Manager

Feedback from the parents currently involved in the Innovations work has been very positive. So far they have provided over 400 hours of volunteering in the centre, and the volunteer parents report developing new relationships with people they would not usually have connected with, a growth in their confidence and skills and changing their perceptions on issues:

"I just wanted to help out families. I don't want something like Baby P to happen here. Whitley's got a bit of a bad name, so I'd like to help it. We're strong people and I think we should all come together to help it." Volunteer

“This project has given me a reason to leave the house after 12 years.” Volunteer

Families have also spoken about the positive impacts of being supported by a volunteer. One parent said:

"It's like we're learning along together. It's a shared experience. Since I've got older my confidence has gone down a bit… But Nicky's taken me along and showed me what's what. I enjoy it."

The impact of the project was also commended in a recent OFSTED report for the centre:

“Volunteers make a significant contribution to the running of the centre, and they also gain personal development as a result. One commented about the Innovations programme, ‘It builds my confidence whilst in a safe environment with support.’” Sure Start Whitley Children’s Centre Ofsted Report, December 2011

An external evaluation of Reading’s work was commissioned by the Transforming Early Years programme and can be found on The Innovation Unit’s website:


Changes to the model of delivery at the children’s centre mean the Parents Supporting Parents scheme is sustainable for future years; the job description of a family worker in the old service was reconfigured to allow her take on the role of volunteer co-ordinator. The plan is to maintain a group of around 30 volunteers covering the Meeter-greeter, Buddy and Mentor roles, with ongoing recruitment and training of new cohorts as volunteers move on. Creating a further higher tier role to work with families with protection plans is under consideration. The job description is available on request, please contact the C4EO team at the NFER .

The initial project was funded by a grant of £20,000 from the Transforming Early Years programme. In future the ongoing work will be funded through the Children’s Centre budget. Savings of £34,000 have been achieved in the centre’s budget through less use of sessional staff, removal of an admin post (the Meeter-greeters now cover the Reception) and reduction of a contract with health for support. This reduction of cost should be seen in the context of a new service that has been co-produced with the parents in the area to better meet their needs, and the improved outcomes seen in the performance measures.

Key points of personal learning for the project team include:

• the benefits of a multi-agency, cross-cutting team on the work to bring different perspectives
• the importance of staying true to the methodology – however challenging to the traditional way of working
• how highly motivating and inspiring having different conversations with residents can be

From their experience, the group has recognised that this kind of work involves a high level of commitment from the staff involved. The group experiences some negative responses from other professionals and it was felt that there may be benefits in engaging a broader range of staff earlier in the process. Evidencing the benefits is also an area which the group felt there was more work to be done on.

The work to date has challenged us professionally in significant ways. We have had to reflect on our historic culture and behavioural practices which form barriers to innovative ways of working and engaging with communities in partnership. For example, we traditionally prioritise getting something done quickly, over taking sufficient time to frame the problem and co-create solutions; we can operate as if processes and meetings are ends in themselves, and can take our eye off the outcomes for the public that we really care about. Our partnerships are characterised by Boards and paperwork rather than by deep trust and mutual collaboration around a deeply shared vision for Reading. Our Early Years work has challenged many of these things. It has been hard! But we recognise that we will need to significantly shift our ways of working, make time for new and different activities, and redefine what success looks like if the innovative potential we have so far demonstrated is to become embedded as our institutional culture.

The team has already begun to replicate the approach across the other 11 children’s centres in Reading. Between October and December 2011 we trained 40 council staff and professionals from other agencies to carry out the ethnography work, and we completed 95 interviews with families across the rest of Reading. These interviews have been analysed and we’re in the process of feeding this information back to parents and starting conversations about ideas and areas to explore further. As with the South Reading project the work will involve professionals from a range of organisations, with the original project team providing their support and experience to help take the work forward.

Reading is also focused on scaling-up the approaches and principles embedded in the Innovations work across the council. The long-term vision is to deepen and embed community engagement to create greater social capital in communities whilst at the same time transforming the practice of professionals. This offers real prospects of transformational impact across a range of priorities and better outcomes for our residents.

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 

Reading Borough Council identified the following behaviours as key to the transformation of their service:

Openness to possibilities
Thinking radically differently to drive efficiencies and better outcomes for families and their children. The project team was open to new ways of working with a passion to drive change by looking at new solutions to doing things differently. There was a collective passion and energy exhibited from all team members.

Personal resilience and tenacity 
We had to take others on the journey with us. At times this was difficult and challenging but as a team we supported each other to drive the change. We realised we had to stay true to the methodology and fidelity of the model and our belief that change was going to happen and that doing nothing was not an option.

The ability to create and sustain commitment across a system 
At all times we were led by the outcomes of the ethnographic research of what the families had told us and by testing this out with a wider set of parents who reinforced and confirmed the original parents’ message to us. 
These became our shared Values and Beliefs that kept us as a team focussed on improving outcomes for families, extending our reach area within our Children’s Centre and transforming our early years work.
We have created a strong multi-agency partnership team engaging directly in the work and through that developed a passion and commitment that has energised people at the front line as well as senior stakeholders.

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