Shelagh Young, Home-Start Director for ScotlandIt’s easy to feel sorry for teachers. Responsibilty for helping to solve every knotty problem from childhood obesity through to climate change, difficult behaviour due to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the perils of sexting eventually ends up on their desks. So when the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee launched an inquiry into attainment and achievement in school-age children experiencing poverty we decided enough was enough. We put our hands up and said: It’s not all about school.

There is considerable homework involved in digesting all the evidence. We are telling the Committee that, when it comes to closing the attainment gap, we are confident in the research that shows that the greatest opportunity to influence a child’s educational attainment levels is through involving their families before they even reach school or nursery. And then keeping them involved.

A vast body of research, a great deal of which was referenced in the Scottish Government’s National Parenting Strategy back in 2012, tells us that parental involvement matters. According to Dr Janet Goodall, Lecturer in Educational Leadership at the University of Bath, involving parents in school is OK but it is what happens at home – between parents and children – that is far more important. 

When it comes to the early years the basics such as language development, which is a crucial element of closing the attainment gap, depends very highly on positive interaction between parents and their children before they get to nursery – no matter if they qualify for free childcare hours and use them from as early as age two.

No child should be living in poverty. But many children who do experience poverty are not reflected in the dominant story that links material disadvantage to lack of educational attainment. We do not dispute there is a link and we welcome the efforts being made in Scotland to reduce dramatically the numbers of children experiencing poverty.

However, one of the biggest assets a child can have is adults at home who, right from the start, are consistent in the way they care for and show their love for their children. That includes being able to make time for fun and creative play, whether indoors or outdoors, for chatting and listening to each other at family mealtimes, for making sure that the child feels safe, gets enough sleep and is learning through observation that managing emotions and impulses is both possible and a vital part of growing up.

The social, emotional and behavioural development of children is the foundation of all that comes later – from education to lifelong wellbeing. That’s why Home-Start’s network in Scotland has launched an attainment related early years support programme Big Hopes, Big Future and why it works with over 3000 families a year: Getting it right for every child starts with getting it right with parents.

Unfortunately, family support services in Scotland are feeling the pinch. This year’s cuts in public sector funding for the Home-Start service are as high as 38% in one area and in some places we still do not know what funding is coming even though the financial year has already started. This no longer feels like the natural ebb and flow of money between organisations doing similar work. Our network income from public sector sources is down nearly 25% since 2012 and, while income diversification and efficiencies have allowed us to support more families than ever before, it remains a worrying trend. A recent Accounts Commission report highlighted the extent to which many of Scotland’s local authorities are using reserves to keep services going. When funding is reduced or delayed, many charities are forced to do the same while others teeter on the brink of closure.

The powerful evidence for early investment in families poses a challenge to our policymakers. Direct family support during the early years typically costs less than £1300 a family and reaching out to parents and carers almost always helps more than one child. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government is investing over £120 million in schools through the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) to help close the attainment gap. This valuable investment is, coincidentally, based on £1200 per child in need.

Surely the time has come for an evidence-based Children’s Equity Fund that reaches many more children before they even get to nursery or school. PEF is a valuable source of support, but in terms of the optimum timing for children, it is surely a case of more than a little arriving far too late.

Shelagh Young is Home-Start UK’s Director of Scotland (@HSScotDirector)