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I CAN's Early Talk Programme:

Independent evaluation of the impact of Early Talk on addressing speech, communication & language needs in Sure Start Children's Centre settings

Dr Judy Whitmarsh, Dr Michael Jopling, Prof Mark Hadfield


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Findings: Objective 3

To integrate parent/carer and other perceptions of the ET programme in the evaluation.

The sustainability and longer-term impact of ET requires that parents and carers, as well as practitioners, develop strategies to support the communication needs of their children. Thus, analysis in this section is based on two data sources: interviews with staff, notably their responses when they were asked how they engaged parents, especially in SLC development; and responses to a short questionnaire survey of parents.

Parents/carers survey

A questionnaire survey was given to parents and carers in all settings and a total of 62 questionnaires were completed in 13 settings. The target was to complete 4-6 in each setting. Where more were completed, 6 were selected at random and used in the analysis to avoid unbalancing the results. 23 questionnaires were received from both Stage 1 and Stage 2 settings; 16 were received from Stage 3 settings. This discussion of the outcomes looks at their perceptions of SLC development in general and ET more specifically.

Parents were initially asked about the information their children's setting had provided about speech and language development. 90 per cent of respondent parents had received some kind of information, most commonly through song and action rhyme sessions, Bookstart or advice leaflets. Stage 1 parents had received a broader range of information than Stage 2 and 3 parents. 85 per cent of parents who had received information from the setting had found it accessible and easy to understand (75 per cent in Stage 3 settings), suggesting that it had met their needs. Just over half of parents showed that they had been proactive in seeking information about SLC development, a proportion that was much higher among Stage 1 parents (78 per cent) than Stage 2 (44 per cent) or Stage 3 parents (31 per cent). Asked to name the most common among the multiple sources of the SLC advice they had accessed, 62 per cent of parents who responded named their health visitor, followed by the internet (38 per cent), books (35 per cent), and doctors or nurses (31 per cent).

60 per cent of parents had discussed how to promote speech and language with setting staff or health visitors (70 per cent of Stage 1 parents). 20 of these parents (32 per cent) identified changes that had resulted which ranged from different approaches to play and more reading to speaking on the children's level and offering more encouragement.

Over a third of the parents (40 per cent) had heard of ET; half of this group had noticed changes in SLC provision in their children's centre in the previous year. These figures were higher for Stage 2 parents than for either Stage 1 or Stage 3 parents, reflecting their centres' more recent engagement with ET. In fact, Stage 1 parents had the lowest positive response rates to both of these questions. This is likely to reflect the fact that less formal attention is paid to initiatives such as ET once they have been institutionalised and embedded in practice. In addition, in some cases that the children of parents surveyed had joined the centre since it had been accredited. A range of benefits for children was associated with these changes in SLC provision. Three parents cited their children speaking more clearly. Others referred to changes such as increased confidence, improved socialisation, and children using more complex sentences, vocabulary and grammar. Finally, 9 parents (15 per cent) said they had been involved in ET themselves. Surprisingly, given the data already discussed, twice as many of them were in Stage 1 settings (6) rather than in Stage 2 settings.

Practitioners on parents

Practitioners were clear about the importance of engaging parents in children's SLC development. Our expectation was that the Stage 1 centres would have the most evolved parental involvement in SLC, since all these settings were at least 6 months post-accreditation and had therefore had time to introduce and embed links with parents. This however was not the case and we found that most Stage 2 centres also had excellent links and used a range of methods to engage parents and carers.

The Stage 1 and 2 centres employed a broader range of modes of parental engagement than the Stage 3 centres. In all five Stage 1 settings, parents were perceived as a resource and parent-practitioner engagement was regarded as a two- way process. This was found in only two of the Stage 2 centres. In fact, one of the remaining Stage 2 centres was the extreme case in associating a perceived "language barrier" with parents being "hard to engage". Moreover, one ET lead (2- 09) stated that once children could speak English, there was no further need for bilingual resources or EAL strategies. In fact, the following tensions were noted in Stage 1 and 2 centres relating to children and parents with English as an additional language:

  • while in some centres engaging some groups of parents was perceived as a challenge, in others, particularly those with a high level of EAL, this was regarded as a barrier;
  • many Bangladeshi parents can speak English but cannot read English; English stories are therefore translated into Bangla for them;
  • staff in one centre were not aware of the existence of Bangla nursery rhymes;
  • in many families, two languages (or more) are spoken at home and any English heard by children at home was described by the Deputy in one centre as "broken English". (1-03).

The two Stage 3 centres with least involvement with ET demonstrated the fewest modes of parental engagement, although interviews with staff revealed that they were aware of this and had started to involve parents more in SLC development. In the centre that had withdrawn from the programme, ET appeared to fulfil a role as a means to audit and serve the needs of non-English speakers. In the remaining Stage 3 centre, the manager commented that although the nursery staff had good relationships with parents, the staff found interacting with them in connection with their children's SLC development more problematic.