(Picture: Samantha Sturgeon was impressed by the interaction that was encouraged at the pilot of FAST at Middlesex University. Here she is playing with her children Akeba, six, and Sebek, 11)
A programme to reduce family conflict and create a supportive community of parents is taking off in the UK, with the blessing of the United Nations, reports Chloe Stothart
● Project name: Families and Schools Together (FAST)
● Aims and objectives: To improve relationships in a family and reduce conflict; to create a supportive community of parents within a school; to improve child educational performance and behaviour; to strengthen links between parents and teachers.
● Run by: Trainers are supplied to groups established by schools and charities by FAST UK, which is based at Middlesex University and is a subsidiary of the US-based FAST International
● Number of service users: about 600 families in England across 50 projects
● Cost of project: £3,000 to buy equipment for a group of 30 to 40 families in England; £18,000 to train and supervise 25 team members and evaluate the project over four months. Funding has come from local authorities on behalf of schools, Save the Children and the National Academy of Parenting Practitioners
● Timescale: Eight weekly sessions plus two years of monthly booster sessions
Evidence is growing that parenting programmes are a cheap and effective use of early intervention resources. One that fits the fashion for budgetary restraint is Families and Schools Together (FAST).
It was developed in the US by Lynn McDonald, now professor of social work research at Middlesex University, after public spending cuts in 1988 which had a devastating impact on poor communities in American cities. And it is similarly deprived areas in the UK that are now being targeted.
“It is about strengthening the family and their support network and relationships,” says McDonald. “A strong family is probably the best prevention programme for any problem.”
There are FAST programmes in more than 2,000 schools in Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Russia, the UK and the US. Recently, the United Nations endorsed FAST as one of the top evidence-based interventions with families.
In the UK Save the Children is planning to roll out 430 FAST groups by 2014, building on the success of the 50 that have been running for 18 months.
The initiative consists of eight weekly sessions to build a supportive community among parents and involves 25-30 families of all children aged between three and 14 in a school year group, not just problem families.
The families, split into groups of eight to 10, make and share a meal served by the children. They take part in a range of activities, such as games in which family members take it in turns to instruct each other and play sessions directed by the children.
More serious matters are discussed, such as substance abuse, and parenting coaching is provided. About 60% of the course content changes to suit the make-up of the group; the rest remains the same.
For two years after the course, there are monthly booster sessions led by parents who have completed the programme. The purpose of these is to maintain the relationships formed between families on the scheme and provide them with somewhere to find help if they need it. “We are improving the child’s well-being by supporting parents; not ‘teaching’ or ‘fixing’ them,” says McDonald.
McDonald and her colleagues at Middlesex University have evaluated FAST programmes in 15 UK schools. They found more than three-quarters of families had annual incomes of less than £20,000 and the course had a retention rate of 83%. As part of the evaluation, parents and teachers were asked to rate family life before and after participation in the programme.
Family conflict reduced by 16%, parent-child relationships improved by 15% and parents said their child’s conduct problems reduced by 24%. More than a quarter of parents said they were more involved in school or further education, 27% said they drank less alcohol, 24% smoked less and 21% took fewer recreational drugs during the programme.
Using indicators to compare the children’s performance before and after the intervention, teachers said hyperactivity had reduced by 11% and classroom disruption by 29%.
The main difficulties have been in recruiting the teams to run the schemes. At the start, many team leaders were professionals, such as social workers, but in some communities it could be difficult to recruit any with local roots, McDonald says. Trained parents make better group leaders because they have a strong understanding of their community and can recruit parents to the group but social workers are the best trainers to oversee the teams because they are used to working with a variety of professions, she says.
As well as Save the Children’s ambitious target to roll out the initiative, the charity is pushing for the four UK governments to recognise FAST as a cheap and effective intervention that should be offered as a universal service to every child in the country from birth.
Case study: ‘the children have become more supportive of each other’
Amantha Sturgeon, 38, took part in a pilot of FAST at Middlesex University with her children Akeba, six, and Sebek, 11, last year. She was recruited by a friend who was also a FAST trainer. She says the programme helps busy families to set aside time to be together.
“By the third week the children really wanted to go; they got into the idea that it was our time,” she says. “It helps with communication that we are sitting around the table and everyone has the time to say things.”
The creative play activities, where the parent and child play with a bag of random objects, helped her return to the idea of being a playful parent. “We had pipecleaners and I ended up with very large earrings made by my child which I had to wear for the rest of the session,” she recalls. She is now more conscious of giving both her children individual time with her. For their part, the children have become more supportive of each other and take on more responsibility.
Doing the activities in the same room as other families also limited opportunities to squabble. “It is good for them to interact with people they do not know in a safe environment,” Sturgeon adds.
Her only criticism is that the need to pack lots of activities into the sessions leaves little time for the children to eat after they have served the meal to the adults.
But having the children present is a strength of the FAST programme in comparison with another parenting course she did many years ago.
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