Early intervention and child development: A parenting pilot in Peterborough

11 July 2019

A home-visiting programme that supports parents to provide a nurturing and stimulating home learning environment for their children could complement existing early years services in England.

The new IFS feasibility study funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, concludes that it would be possible to implement and evaluate a new programme targeted at very young children in disadvantaged families. The report also provides a blueprint for what the programme and evaluation could look like.

In England, the preschool years have received increasing funding over the past two decades. But the bulk of these resources are still targeted at children aged 3 and 4. At the same time, there is increasingly strong evidence that inequalities – in child development and in health – are already obvious by age 2 or 3. This means that programmes for 3- and 4-year-olds need to compensate for the gaps that have already appeared, and current evidence suggests that they are only somewhat successful in this.

For this study, the research team focused on a single local authority to assess the feasibility (and, in future work, the effectiveness) of the programme. 

Peterborough was a particularly appropriate setting to develop and test this programme. A city of about 200,000 in East Anglia, it faces many of the socio-economic risk factors (such as poverty and low pay) that threaten children’s healthy development in disadvantaged communities all around England. Moreover, Peterborough City Council’s exemplary commitment to developing and evaluating this programme is critical to the project’s success.

The feasibility study finds:

  • There is a gap in services that a home-visiting programme targeted at very young children’s development might help to fill. At the moment, early years services in England are primarily targeted at children aged 3 and older, while inequalities in child development open up earlier.
  • Parents and practitioners in Peterborough are eager for such a programme and strongly motivated to take part in it. Parents in both focus groups and our pilot study strongly supported the rationale behind a programme to support them in interacting with their children. Practitioners felt that the programme offers something different from existing services and would help them to support vulnerable families more effectively.
  • There is promising qualitative evidence of the programme’s effectiveness. Many parents in the pilot sessions reported improvements in their child’s focus and behaviour over just a few weeks, motivating them to continue. Practitioners reported significant changes in parents’ behaviour over the course of the short pilot, and in one case an early years worker who was unaware of the pilot reported significant improvements in a pilot family’s parent–child interactions during a group session.
  • Undertaking a rigorous evaluation of the intervention via a randomised controlled trial within Peterborough is feasible and has strong support among both the council and local practitioners. Through the collection and linkage of adequate data, such a study would make a substantial contribution to the evidence base on early intervention in the UK and internationally, by providing a unique opportunity to understand whether and how such an intervention can lead to both private and social benefits even in the short run.