• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 26th May, 2010

Save the Children plans to give British children a FAST start

The international charity, Save the Children, is going back to its roots. In the 1930s, it campaigned across the UK to improve the diet and health of children living in poverty. Those efforts led to the Education Act of 1944, which guaranteed free school meals for the UK's children. Now, Save the Children’s next big project is directed at the same population.On May 14, 2010, Save the Children announced it was partnering with the Families and Schools Together (FAST) parental engagement program. Pilot studies are already underway in Belfast, West Dunbartonshire, Caerphilly, Manchester and London. The plan is to roll out the FAST program across the UK. The mission of FAST is to improve relationships between parents of children and their schools. First developed in 1988 by Lynn McDonald, now of Middlesex University, FAST is based on the socio-ecological theory of child development. Evidence has shown that stronger bonds between families and schools lead to vastly improved outcomes for children. Children whose families complete the FAST program have shown a twenty percent or more increase in attention span and a significant drop in disruptive conduct. The methods at work in FAST are deceptively simple. FAST uses an eight-week curriculum. Families meet weekly with other families, usually at the school, under the facilitation of a trainer or practitioner. There, they take part in activities like eating a family meal together, helping their child with homework, or learning to network with other parents. Each family also receives a hamper of books and toys so that they can support their child’s development at home. After graduation, parents meet on a monthly basis for almost two years. This allows the relationships developed through the program to flower and hopefully encourages the behavioral gains to take root. FAST is no fly-by-night operation. It has already been implemented in eight countries and 2,000 schools. It is known for its high retention rates. 80% of low-income families who attend one class stick with the entire program. In announcing the partnership, the head of Save the Children’s UK Programs Simone Spray said, “As our evidence base grows, we will demonstrate to all four UK governments how it is possible to implement a cost-effective, inclusive and scalable parental engagement programs for children living in poverty and their parents.” FAST fits neatly into one of Save the Children’s missions of narrowing the so-called “achievement gap.” In the UK, children in poverty fall behind their wealthier counterparts developmentally before they reach the age of two. This gap widens throughout a child’s time at school.The version of FAST to be implemented with Save the Children will focus on children between the ages of three and five. This is a departure from FAST’s typical focus on children in both primary and secondary school. According to Gemma Bull, FAST Program Strategy manager for Save the Children, they are going where the need is greatest. Bull points out that in the UK, poor parents with children moving between pre-school and primary school have almost no access to parental engagement programs. It is a “critical gap,” she says. “85% of a child’s success at school depends on the type of support and stimulation that their parents provide for learning in the home. This means that we can break the poverty cycle if we intervene early enough.”A further innovation in the Save the Children sponsored program is the addition of Philosophy for Children (P4C) as one of the family activities. P4C introduces children to the basic tenets of philosophical enquiry—teaching children critical thinking and the ability to develop well-reasoned arguments and opinions. By 2014, Save the Children plans to have over 430 FAST groups in place across the UK, working with 50,000 children, with 8,000 newly trained program practitioners. Save the Children’s Simone Spray hopes this is just the beginning: “We will call for millions more children to be able to benefit from FAST and for every child in the UK to have equal access to local evidence-based preventative support from birth.”

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