Shelagh Young, Home-Start Director for ScotlandBad news again for Scotland last week when the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy revealed that the reading ability of pupils in key age groups is still lower than it was in 2012. Worse still, there has been no reduction in the attainment gap between pupils from better-off areas and those from less wealthy areas.

The Scottish Government’s most recent attempts to close this gap are focused on additional work in schools. Meanwhile Home-Start’s new national programme Big Hopes Big Future (BHBF), starting first in Aberdeen and East Lothian, is offering exactly what all the leading research into the attainment gap indicates will have the most positive impact: Engaging intensively with children and families together before school age.

Children’s future outcomes are becoming possible to predict with gloomy accuracy from the age of three. The lack of a positive home learning environment leaves children unable to keep up with their peers when it comes to the types of behaviours, skills and abilities that will help them make the most of school and serve them well for the rest of their lives.

Through its work in England, Home-Start has been able to demonstrate that carefully designed and targeted additional support in the early years to facilitate the active engagement of parents and carers can change this unfair trajectory.

An evaluation of the programme in England showed that Big Hopes Big Future resulted in a 25% to 33% improvement in children’s “readiness” for school when looked at in terms of language and cognition, behavioural adjustment, daily living skills and family support. Now fully revised to meet children’s needs in Scotland, the programme has been funded nationally for three years by the STV Appeal and locally by a range of funders.

BHBF builds on Home-Start’s successful model of volunteer-led family support in the home by offering a structured and fun programme that aims to develop the emotional, social, cognitive and practical skills children need for school through play-based learning. Trained volunteers share creative ways to help children and parents/carers build their skills and confidence.

Every dimension of child development is addressed where necessary – from the social skills of sharing with others and eating with cutlery to the powerful impact of getting enough sleep by developing better bedtime routines.

The programme is dependent on volunteers. Local people helping each other is the bedrock of Home-Start’s service, not least because we know that support and learning work best in a relationship of mutual trust, especially as many parents we work with lack confidence.

BHBF volunteers undertake specialist training and are able to coach parents through a number of significant challenges by meeting at least twice a week over an agreed period of time, typically around six months. The work remains flexible and person-centred but the BHBF action-based learning requires parent/carer commitment to a consistent plan to maximise its benefits.

Children have a right to education. BHBF volunteers support parents and carers in ensuring their children are able to make the most of their rights. In short, families really matter when it comes to closing the attainment gap.

Shelagh Young
May 2017

Shelagh Young is Home-Start UK's director of Scotland