Giving back to society through apps that teach skills for life

How some simple apps and a bit of vision may be paving the way for a new generation of language-empowered children, and setting a new course for their lives.

Give a man a fish, and he’ll feed his family today. Teach him how to fish, and he’ll feed his family for ever.

It’s an old adage, but it loses nothing in its translation to the 21st century with the news from the UK Government that thousands of families are to be given free access to educational apps that help boost early literacy and language skills

Parents are to be offered interactive learning tools and text message tips to support children’s early language and literacy at home, as part of a society-wide push to make sure children start school ready to learn.

Families from disadvantaged backgrounds are to be given free access to some of the best children’s educational apps for smart phones and tablets, Education Secretary Damian Hinds has announced. The plan is that it will encourage parents to think about how to use children’s screen time constructively, rather than as an easy distraction.

It’s believed that on average disadvantaged children are four months behind in their overall development at age 5. That gap grows by an additional six months by the age of 11, and by the time they take their GCSEs they are, on average, more than a year and a half behind their peers in terms of overall attainment.

The Department for Education says there are hundreds of educational apps for phones or tablets, but little reliable information about which are the most effective. As a result the Department intends to buy subscriptions to high-quality early learning apps and provide access to some of them free of charge to disadvantaged families with children aged two to four, in up to 12 pilot areas across the country.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds said: “No parent has all of the answers. Being a parent is like learning to drive: wonderful, full of new discovery, but at times challenging, with plenty of obstacles to swerve. Our children are growing up in a constantly changing world and it is hard to keep up.

“And when it comes to children and technology – that’s where a manual can be helpful. Not all screen time is created equal: on one side there are the pressures that come with social media and the time spent looking at a screen, which is a key worry for parents – but on the other, the power of technology and the internet can open up a whole new world when embraced properly.

“But it’s also difficult to navigate, and often expensive, so I want to support parents of all backgrounds to feel able to embrace its benefits and use it in a measured, sensible way that helps improve children’s early development at home.”

Nearly 6,000 families in the north of England will also take part in four new programmes that provide practical tools and advice, such as parenting group sessions, educational toys and books or text message tips sent directly to their mobile phones.

Up to 375 schools and nurseries will be recruited for the projects, run by the Education Endowment Foundation and Leeds-based education charity SHINE – building on the Education Secretary’s 10-year ambition to halve the proportion of children leaving Reception without the communication skills needed to thrive.

The trials will include:

  • Making-it-REAL: 960 families in 120 schools in Greater Manchester and Yorkshire will trial a successful National Children’s Bureau programme that trains early years professionals to visit families at home, getting parents more involved in drawing, singing songs and counting with their children, as well as encouraging them to use everyday activities to boost learning;
  • Group Triple P (Positive Parenting Program): Trained experts will show parents how to improve their children’s language, and social and emotional development through role play, homework exercises and video clips of positive parenting techniques. 1,800 families in the north west will benefit across 150 schools and nurseries;
  • Parent Child Home Programme: Trained experts will visit families in Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield and Barnsley at home twice a week for 15 months, demonstrating different reading, conversation and play activities, and providing books and educational toys to enrich the home learning environment. The programme will be run by Family Lives and 320 families with two-year-olds will benefit;
  • Tips by Text: Parents of four and five-year-olds will be sent three texts each week to encourage activities that help develop literacy, numeracy and socio-emotional skills, such as counting the number of plates on the table. More than 2,700 families from 105 schools in the north east will trial an eight-month study run by the Behavioural Insights Team, who have run other successful text message ‘nudge’ trials like this.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds continued:

Mr Hinds said the Home Learning Environment could have a huge impact on a child’s ability to succeed in life: “I want to support families with hints and tips to propel their child’s learning so they are not behind on their first day of school and they can go on to reach their full potential, whatever their background.”