FAST forward to a better start at school

Euan Lloyd describes the FAST programme and argues that the debilitating effects of living in poverty means that some parents may require extra help to engage in their child's education and provide the type of positive home learning environment children need to fulfil their potential.

Monique (8) has dyspraxia, a learning difficulty which means she struggles at school with problems with maths and writing, and overall concentration. Natalie is a busy working parent and worries that she doesn't spend enough time with Monique at home. She is concerned for Monique's future but finds it difficult to give her the support she needs to help Monique do better at school. They took part in the Families and Schools Together (FAST) programme at their primary school. FAST is a family support programme which helps parents to engage in their child's education and improve the home learning environment. The programme included one-to-one activities which have transformed Monique's behaviour and helped Natalie and Monique to bond. Natalie has even been inspired to take a university course in supporting children with special needs.

Parents, carers and family members are the most important influences on children's lives. Despite their best intentions, many parents, especially those from low-income communities, struggle to provide the home learning environment their child needs to prosper at school. However, very few parents get help. 85% of a child's success at school depends on what happens outside the school gates, so the support provided by parents at home is vital.

This is especially true for families struggling to cope on low incomes, whose children do significantly worse at school than their peers, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Education is a way out of poverty, so breaking the link between deprivation and poor performance in school is crucial. Parents are vital for supporting their children's learning. But to do this, some parents need help.

Child poverty

One in four children in Scotland (250,000) lives in poverty (The Scottish Government 2011a). Growing up in poverty damages all parts of a child's life - from their physical and mental health to their potential to get a good education leading to a well-paid, stable career. Progress to end child poverty by 2020, a statutory duty on both the UK and Scottish Governments, has stalled. Following a sharp drop from 1998 to 2005, there has been no progress made since. The prospect of ending it has been seriously undermined by the economic crisis. Modelling by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) predicts that child poverty will rise so that all the progress made since the late 1990s will be wiped out over the next decade (Brewer, Browne and Joyce 2011)

While the statistics make for grim reading, there is nothing inevitable about child poverty. With a combination of political will and the right solutions, it is still possible to end it in the UK once and for all. Broadly speaking, action is required on two fronts: increasing the incomes of the poorest families and improving the life chances of deprived children. Raising the educational achievement of children growing up in poverty is vital to the second aim, and to the goal of ending the inter-generational cycle of poverty.

Educational achievement gap

Poor educational achievement is both a symptom and a cause of child poverty. Children who grow up in poverty do significantly worse at school than their better-off peers, and consequently, are less likely to find the well-paid, sustainable employment in adulthood required for them and their own families to escape poverty.

The evidence is unequivocal. Children who grow up in poverty fall behind at a very early age, before school starts, and more often than not, fail to catch up. According to the Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) study, children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer vocabulary and problem solving ability at age three than children from better off backgrounds (Melhuish 2010).

Through the school system, the 'gap' which emerges in the earliest years is compounded and exacerbated. By the time pupils sit Standard Grades, there is an 85% difference in attainment between the poorest and best off (The Scottish Government 2010). Ultimately, the educational achievement gap manifests in the life chances of young people who have grown up in poverty. Almost one in five school leavers from deprived areas goes straight into unemployment, twice the average rate of one in ten and far higher than the one in 20 from the richest areas (The Scottish Government 2011b). The poorest pupils are half as likely to go to university than their peers, and a third as likely as the richest pupils (The Scottish Government 2011b).

The disparity in educational achievement between those who grow up in poverty and other children is deeply ingrained. Over the period of devolution, there has been little, if any, progress, leaving tens of thousands of children and young people unable to fulfil their potential.

Parenting and the home learning environment

The underlying reasons for children from deprived areas under-achieving at school are complex. There is no single solution. We can, however, identify the policy areas which will have the greatest impact. One is pre-school education and care, where high quality, extensive provision is proven to help the poorest pupils overcome the initial disadvantage they may face (Sylva et al. 2011). A second is within schools themselves, where increased funding targeted at the poorest pupils and spending on tried and tested support has been shown to increase achievement (Chowdry et al. 2010). A third is supporting parents to improve the home learning environment for their children. While action is required on all these, there is strong evidence that improving the home learning environment could bring the greatest benefits in improving the school performance of the poorest pupils.

There is no causal link between income levels and parenting ability. Living in poverty can, however, contribute to parental stress, depression and ability leading to disrupted parenting which harms children's prospects (Tackling Poverty Board 2011). The case of Natalie and Monique is a prime example of how surviving on a low income can challenge parents. In particular, some low-income parents struggle to provide a positive home learning environment for their children. The Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3-16) research project concluded that the home learning environment in the early years is the largest factor in attainment at age ten, bigger even than the effect of pre-school and primary school (Sylva et al. 2010). An analysis of data from GUS found that the influence of a positive home learning environment was more important to a child's cognitive development than socio-demographic factors such as parental education, socio-economic status and income (Melhuish 2010). The Scottish Government's Early Years Framework itself states that the '...home learning environment in the early years is the largest factor in attainment and achievement' (The Scottish Government 2008).

Despite the evidence, Save the Children research has identified a lack of parental support programmes which focus on education and reach a large number of deprived families.

The national parenting strategy and the home learning environment

The national parenting strategy presents the Scottish Government with the opportunity to address this by providing all parents in deprived communities with access to evidence-based programmes in the early years (0-8). While the programmes would vary depending on the needs of local communities, there must be an entitlement to support. The support must be based on certain key principles.

  • First, to ensure lasting impact, only programmes proven to be successful should be invested in. The government could develop an accredited list of evidence-based programmes
  • Second, the entitlement to support should reach all families living in poverty. Existing programmes which focus intensively on a few children may be very effective, but only by reaching all of the one in four children living in poverty will we achieve the outcomes required to end child poverty
  • Third, the support should take an 'assets-based' approach, building on the existing skills and capacity of parents to help their children achieve
  • Finally, support must be available at key transitional stages. The evidence shows that the educational achievement gap 'spikes' at certain transition stages, such as moving from pre-school to primary, when children from low-income backgrounds can find it difficult to adapt (Furlong 2005)

It was a programme aimed at improving the home learning environment and based on these key principles which helped Natalie to support her daughter. The Scottish Government now has the opportunity to extend similar help to all families in low- income communities, and must grasp it.


An example of the type of support that should be available is the Families And Schools Together (FAST) programme, a radical scheme which brings together children, parents, school and the wider community to help parents build the skills and confidence they need to improve the home learning environment and support their child's education. It runs as an after-school, multi-family group programme over eight weeks and available to all children in a school serving a deprived area. The programme has run successfully in over 2,000 schools across 11 countries. It is just one example of the type of programme, which could be aimed at all families living in poverty, to break the link between poverty and educational under-achievement.

About the author

Euan Lloyd is a policy officer for Save the Children in Scotland. His main area of interest is the role of education in tackling child poverty. Before Save the Children, Euan worked as a political researcher in the Scottish Parliament.


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Furlong, A. (2005). "Cultural dimensions of decisions about educational participation among 14-19 year olds: the parts that Tomlinson doesn't reach". Journal of Education Policy 20(3)

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Tackling Poverty Board (2011). Early years and child poverty. The Scottish Government