27 Nov 2011

Tackling childhood deprivation – but who pays?

Social Affairs Editor and Presenter

A proven scheme to help tackle social problems by building family relationships in deprived areas launches tomorrow. It’s funded not by the government – but by a bank and a supermarket.

The government has made clear its belief in the power of early intervention to help lift people out of poverty and guard against social breakdown.

“The seeds of so many social problems as well as success stories,” said the Prime Minister, “are sown in the early years.”

Tomorrow a world renowned early intervention programme will begin to be rolled out across 400 schools in Britain. But it’s not being done by the government. It’s being run by a charity and sponsored by a supermarket and a bank.

The FAST programme – Families and Schools Together – originated in America but now operates in 14 countries. Save the Children has been piloting it in a number of areas in the UK.

We went to see a project in action in Birmingham. At the beginning it all looks deceptively simple, children and their parents singing songs and sharing a meal together. However, during the three hour sessions there’s work done through various play activities which improve relationships between parents and children. A game of “Feeling Charades” helps the children work out how to deal with their emotions.

The parents are encouraged to boost their child’s confidence – and all of it done with a view to making the family more able to deal with life, and ultimately improve how the child does at school.

The results are impressive enough to see the programme accredited by the United Nations. Research shows 73 per cent of parents who complete the FAST programme are better able to support their child in school. Teachers say children’s basic skills improve and that poor behaviour in class is reduced by 40 per cent.

But if it’s so impressive and so fits the government’s criteria for early intervention programmes, why is it being left to a charity, Morrisons and Lloyds Bank to pay for it?

Sally Copley is Save the Children’s Head of Poverty. She said

“For Save the Children we’re really grateful that we could finding that enabled us to pilot this now. What we really want to see is ever parent being entitled to this programme, from a deprived area.

“To a certain extent it almost doesn’t matter who funds it. What really matters is that parents are able to access this programme, because it is simply so effective in helping parents engage with their children’s education.”

Graham Allen is a Labour MP who says every child should have access to a FAST Programme. He’s written two hugely influential papers on early intervention for the government. But perhaps surprisingly he isn’t calling for the coalition to put up the cash. And as for a crucial education programme being sponsored by a high street supermarket? Welcome to the real world, he says.

“I think we’ve got to be a lot more creative now, to imagine that a government – whether it’s a Conservative government, a coalition government or a Labour government even will find slabs of billions of pounds to fund programmes is like this is a pipe dream.

“We need to be much more inventive – we need to bring in the private sector, we need to bring in philanthropy, and perhaps most important of all we need to spend government and local government money that’s out there – more effectively.”

One thing that does worry him though is sustainability. He knows from his own work on early intervention that it’s vital the programmes don’t just spring up for a while and die.

It’s a real concern for Save the Children too. Their funding from Lloyds and Morrisons runs out in two years time.