Certain approaches to supporting parents who need extra help to prepare their under-fives for school risk alienating them, leading to their children being less school ready, research has found.

Helen Victoria Smith, a PhD student in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham, conducted the research as part of a larger ethnographic study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. This explores how mothers used and experienced the resources provided by a small town in the East Midlands to support their children's literacy development. 

She says that concerns are growing over children arriving at school at the age of four without the skills they need to succeed. There are also concerns about a "persistent attainment gap" between children from poorer and from better-off families.

Mrs Smith looked at how different services in the community, which was deemed to be educationally deprived, supported families in getting their children ready for school.

She found that approaches that focus on educating mothers could:

  • put off some as they are seen as too like lessons and mothers feel they are being told how to raise their child
  • stigmatise families as 'vulnerable' and 'deficient', leading to lack of uptake of the support
  • emphasise the idea that professionals know better about educating children and lead to lack of engagement at home.

Government policy has highlighted the need for parents to give children the best start, urging them to provide the right sort of home learning environment. Parents who read regularly to their children, take them to the library, teach letters, numbers and nursery rhymes, and paint, draw and sign with them, are seen as having a greater impact on their children's intellectual and social development, whatever the parental occupation, education or income.

Mrs Smith says: "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.

"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."

Parents who are targeted by Children's Centres are offered instruction in how best to prepare their children for school. During these sessions, their children are not with them. They are given handouts that detail the knowledge they are seen to need, as well as questions and tasks to complete with in the session. 

"Mothers, rather than the children, were made the focus of the teaching," Mrs Smith explains.

Many of the groups suffer from low attendance figures and a number of those who did attend at the start, fell away before the course was finished.

Mrs Smith says: "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. Another mother commented that one professional was too 'school mistressy' and the sessions were like being at school."

Mrs Smith says that this idea of targeting families creates a stigma around the use of the Children's Centres, with parents not wanting to be identified as needing support in bringing up their children.

The other issue she discovered through her research was that Children's Centres pushed the idea that these families should try to get their children into formalised educational environments, such as pre-schools, as early as possible. This can reinforce the idea that professionals know best how to support their child's education.

She says: "As a result, parents are likely to be even more confused about their role as they receive mixed messages about what is best for their child, and educational inequalities are likely to remain. Mothers that had attended groups at the Children's Centres did comment that they felt the professionals knew better and that once their child was enrolled in childcare they didn’t need to do as much."

In contrast, mothers who visit the public library or private parent and child classes are offered support very differently. Children, not mothers, are the focus and they are encouraged to interact and experience what is on offer together. Activities such as singing, moving and using different props are designed to engage the children, enhance their learning and increase their 'school readiness'.

Mrs Smith says: "My research showed that the mothers in these settings did continue similar activities at home and were more likely to continue supporting their children's learning once they were attending a pre-school."

She adds: "I hope that my research will help policymakers 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."