Why being small and local can be a strength when trying to reach families during lockdown

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In the second of a two-part interview, Anna-Louise Van De Merwe, national director of the Foundation Years Trust, explains how her small charity has moved quickly to adapt to the lockdown.

There is so much noise out there. As a parent I struggle to know where to go, where to look next.

Anna-Louise Van De Merwe

“Just about everything changed overnight,” says Anna-Louise Van De Merwe, recalling the week that schools were closed, and lockdown began.

Her charity, the Foundation Years Trust (FYT), which works with parents to encourage learning through play and interaction at home, moved fast to adapt to the situation.

In conjunction with SHINE, the trust has been running training sessions at Wirral primary schools, showing nursery staff how to forge strong relationships with parents and to demonstrate how everyday interactions and play can enhance their children’s learning in the early years.

The training is delivered in face-to-face group sessions, which all had to be halted as soon as the Covid-19 crisis began, in mid-March, meaning FYT had to rethink its entire strategy.

“It became clear it was going to be a tough call to work with schools in any form while they were still getting to grips with their situation,” says Anna-Louise. “Our immediate response was that we’re certainly not going to put the schools under pressure while they’re trying to sort themselves out so we will make sure we go directly to parents now.”

Staff began developing videos based on a curriculum that they had been using in the group sessions. They demonstrated activities that parents could try at home. Some staff have children of their own and have incorporated them into the videos.

We’ve been reaching a lot of families,” says Anna-Louise. “One of the videos we made got over 2,000 views. We had already got a small but solid following online and that seems to have really ramped up. One way we are maximising this locally is by combining online timetables with the Children’s Centres My Child Can campaign and with other early years partners – so parents have one source to go to and a choice of easily accessible activities online. The coordination across the borough is key.”

It is a relief for Anna-Louise and her small team.  “There was a massive fear from us at the beginning – what if nobody engages? It was a big possibility.

“We genuinely had no idea whether we were going to reach people because everyone in education has moved online. There is so much noise out there. As a parent I struggle to know where to go, where to look next.

“Bigger organisations are putting out so much glossy material at present, which is great, but it is a lot of pressure for parents and they may not know where to look.

“What we’ve quickly come to realise is that the families we are working with are less likely to engage with national-level initiatives. As a small local charity with a local reputation, we’re better placed to provide support because we’re already a trusted source.

“Our approach to the home-learning environment is all to do with play and interaction and developing learning through those everyday opportunities. It has never been more important than now, so our challenge is to make sure that we maintain and build that following.

“Because our reach has extended so dramatically through the work we’re doing online, when we are in a position to actually start coming back to some sort of normality, we’ve got relationships there that we can tap into and much more easily encourage people towards groups.”

Anna-Louise believes social distancing will remain in place at schools into the new school year and beyond, so there may be a reticence for nursery staff to return to the group sessions. “This is going to mean big changes for us.”

“It’s taken us all a long time to build up that confident relationship with nursery schools where they could see the impact of what we were training them to do.

“I’m fully expecting that the early years phase will need even more support over the next couple of years, because of the disruption of the last few months.

“We are looking to reach out to parents in various ways to ask them what they need from us. We’ll get some feedback and gauge how we can adapt our service in the most useful way possible.”