When Emma had twins three years ago, life was turned upside down by the sheer amount of time and effort needed to care for them. Practical needs like feeds and changes took up all her time, and her relationship with her two year old daughter Doralie suffered, As Doralie got older and closer to starting school, Emma became increasingly stressed that she wouldn’t be ready.

“I already have two kids who are at university,” Emma explained, “so I know how to prepare them. But having the twins, who were only two years and two months younger, I was not having the time to spend with her that I would have liked to.”

Each year around 600,000 children start primary school for the first time. Increasingly children start school without the skills – such as sharing, being toilet trained or eating without help – that they need to begin learning. Every family is unique, and there are countless reasons why families struggle to help their children prepare for beginning school for that first time.

That is why Home-Start has developed Big Hopes Big Future, a new scheme, specially created to help give families the support to get their children ready for school.

Emma had three children under four and no time to spend dedicated to Doralie. Emma was already receiving support from Home-Start home-visiting volunteer when then they told her about Big Hopes Big Future.

Home-Start introduced Emma to Marie, a new volunteer who had signed up to do the extra training that is given to volunteers as part of the programme. As a retired teacher Marie knew just how important getting children ready for learning was.

Sara Brown, Big Hopes Big Future project lead at Home-Start UK said “Emma knew what she needed to do for Doralie, she just didn’t have the time. But some parents didn’t have good role models, and others are prevented from giving their children the time they need by illness, disability, post-natal depression or poor memories of their own time at school.”

Home-Start has developed tools, resources and exercises for volunteers to use with families. Volunteers help families prepare children for school in lots of ways, but for Marie the thing that got her most excited was helping Doralie with her reading.

“I’ve always had an interest in the power of reading, and that is what interested me in the Home-Start project,” she remembers. “Those who can read and who have a love of books often surge ahead.”

Marie also helped Doralie to develop the skills she would need when she would get to the classroom.

“Often young children find concentration very difficult,” says Marie. “If you have had a lot of distractions, perhaps it is difficult to go to school and realise then that you have to sit for some period of time and listen to the teacher.”

Emma adds, “Doralie felt more prepared because Marie kept saying, ‘when you go to school this is what you do’”.

They would read school themed books, or play games, remembers Marie. “I would do things like role play, when I would be the teacher and she would be the class monitor and she would take things round and she would help to take a register to the school office, helping her to build her confidence.”

But the most important thing was that Doralie could have time focused on her, and that she would receive praise for the progress she made.

“I used to take the twins out of the way to play in the garden or upstairs so she could focus with the volunteer,” says Emma.

“In a busy family it isn’t always easy,” says Marie. “Having three children under four, that is a lot of time spent on the practical things of bringing up children.”

Emma always knew the importance of Doralie being ready for school. As she says, “education is the most important gift you can give to your children”. But now, seeing the kind of things Marie has been doing with Doralie as part of Big Hopes Big Future, Emma has been inspired and motivated to dedicate more time to helping Doralie at home.

Doralie has now finished her first year at school and everyone is delighted at the progress she has made.

A proud Emma says, “On her report it says she is doing ‘as expected’ or ‘better than expected’. For saying she’s one of the youngest in the year, I’m really pleased with that. I know that her progress could have been impeded because I couldn’t give her the one-to-one time as much as I would have liked to.”

A study into the pilot of the Big Hopes Big Future programme has shown that children saw significant improvements in all four indications into school readiness, and now Home-Start has received funding from the Department for Education to expand it to 80 communities across England.

Marie has helped Doralie to have the best start at school, and, like all Home-Start volunteers, she has helped give Emma the support she needs too.

“The two volunteers I’ve had since I’ve had the twins have been absolutely excellent, and they’ve given me support at a time when I’ve really, really needed it,” says Emma. “I’ve more confidence in myself as a parent and they have given me confidence in myself that I am doing the right things. We all have bad days and none of us are perfect. They’ve helped me a lot as well.”