A leading children’s charity, Home-Start, is launching a new project called Big Hopes Big Future to combat the growing problem of children starting school without the skills they need to start learning.

Around 600,000 five year olds will be starting school for the first time this week, yet a recent study estimated that almost half will not be ready for education.

The result is that teachers are spending increasing amounts of time and resources helping children who do not have basic skills such as being able to hold a pencil, recognising their name when it’s written down, or being toilet trained.

To help reverse this trend, Home-Start has developed Big Hopes Big Future, a ground-breaking set of resources and training programmes for its volunteers that are designed to work with families where children may be lacking the skills they need when school begins.

A study into a trial of the Big Hopes Big Future programme carried out with the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge and the University of South Wales and published today, showed that the support led to between 25% and 33% improvement in the children’s school readiness.

Rob Parkinson, chief executive of Home-Start said, “For many of us our first day at school is one of our earliest memories; a milestone in our young lives. Tragically, for many children, barriers exist that mean they start school already well behind their peers. Big Hopes Big Future has had a great impact in helping families get their children ready for school. Most importantly, we have seen that it has had the biggest impact on children in complex families and successfully targets some of the most hard to reach families, who often need the most support.”

Home-Start’s Big Hopes Big Future pilot project supported 225 families, including 540 children, in 12 Home-Starts in England. Of these children, 139 were referred directly to the programme by a wide range of education and community organisations including health visitors, nurseries and children’s centres.

The project specifically targeted the most disadvantaged families including those who did not readily engage with their children’s early learning because they lacked confidence or felt alienated from the education system. Families also lacked the books and toys needed to support their children’s learning. Many had chaotic lifestyles or had poor health, disability, or English was not a first language.

The study into the Big Hopes Big Future project showed that children saw significant improvements in all four indications into school readiness:

  • language and cognitive skills (e.g. identifying letters of the alphabet, recognising own name, reads at home, counting to five)
  • Behavioural adjustment (e.g. tantrums, lack of patience, easily distracted, poor response to reprimands)
  • Children’s daily living skills (e.g. toilet training, using knife and fork)
  • Family support (e.g. being punctual, absence levels from nursery)

The study also showed that the biggest impact was seen with children from families with complex problems. The improvement in language and cognition was particularly evident for children who were eligible for free school meals, for families with mental health issues and for those with multiple deprivation.

Rob Parkinson, added, “Investment is now a priority and I hope that commissioning services and other funders and partners will support our ambition to reach a further 5,000 children by 2020. We want to make sure that the big hopes we have for our children on their first day at school translate into improved life chances and big futures for them all.”

The programme has now received £380,000 of funding from the Department for Education which means it will be expanded to 80 communities across England.