The belief that parents’ involvement should be a key feature of any high-quality early years provision has been well supported in government reports from the Plowden Report in 1967 to the DfE Excellence in Schools in 1997.
The concept of a ‘triangle of care’ was developed in the Start Right report (Ball, 1994), which described a new kind of partnership between parents and professionals. Parents were described as having their own proper competence, and parents’ deep commitment to their children’s learning was finally acknowledged.
The Start Right report made it clear that the key issue for early childhood educators in education and care settings was to develop a strong relationship with parents as the child’s first and enduring educators. The role of early childhood settings was to support parents through:
exemplifying good practice
providing information about current research
offering appropriate parent education and professional support; and
helping parents to develop and sustain their sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy.
Wider research showed that a large number of parents wanted to be involved in their children’s early school experiences (Smith, 1990). The involvement of parents in the Froebel Early Education Project (1973–8) provided evidence of deep commitment on the part of parents, who were consulted on professional concerns rather than ‘peripheral issues’ (Athey, 1990, p. 206). Research also indicated that children made significant gains when their parents were involved in early childhood programmes (Lazar, 1983). However, researchers were still unclear about just ‘how’ parental involvement actually benefits children in nursery settings (Meade, 1995).
Since opening in 1983, the staff at Pen Green had been working to develop a comprehensive parent partnership programme that recognised the critical role parents have to play as their child’s primary educators. By the late 1990s, more than 6,000 local parents had been involved at the centre. Through an equal and active partnership of care and education staff and families had established a model of co-operative working that respected both the learning and support needs of parents, in addition to each child’s right to high-quality early years education with care.
Building on this long tradition of parental involvement, in 1996 we decided to establish a research base at Pen Green. Our initial aim was to understand how parental involvement in early years settings actually benefitted children. Parents were involved with the advisory group for the Research Base. They worked alongside staff, researchers and academics as equals, sharing their own unique perspectives of children’s learning and development. We could clearly see that issues around teaching, learning and curriculum, which had previously been the domain of professional staff, needed to be opened up for a wider discussion with parents and families. What we needed was a rich and relevant dialogue between parents and nursery staff which could be sustained over time, a dialogue which focused on the children’s learning and achievements and our own pedagogic practice.
Because the services offered by Pen Green were still radically different from those available in other early years provisions, there was a great deal of interest in our practice from social scientists and educationalists in universities and research institutions. We were actively involved as ‘subjects’ in a number of other programmes and research projects, but found these experiences helped us to become more effective practitioners. We were increasingly interested in being participants in the research process and developing our own small scale action research projects to address our own questions and concerns about issues raised in practice.
Influenced by the research of our colleagues and peers, as well as the dynamic changes within the early years sectors, the scope and nature of our work has dramatically evolved and expanded. In 1998 we set up our MA programme for early years leaders. Since then we have gone on to extend our degree programme to include courses at foundation and BA level. More recently we have introduced teacher training opportunities as well as running our undergraduate programmes off-site, in various satellite hubs around the country including Bradford, Kegworth and London.
We run regular professional development opportunities for practitioners working with families across the early years, health and social sectors. These range from national scale conferences to small scale short courses, seminars and bespoke training for other providers, local authorities and governments.