Guest Blog from Save the Children: What we have learned from our RCT

Today we are publishing the independent evaluation of the EEF's trial of Families and Schools Together (FAST), delivered by Save the Children. Here Jane Lewis, their Head of UK Programme Development and Quality, reflects on what the charity has learned by putting their approaches to parental engagement to the test…

Anyone who has been involved in a randomised controlled trial (RCT) knows how much hard work goes into them, but also just how worthwhile they are. Robust, considered and published research like this advances our understanding of what helps to improve children’s outcomes and close the attainment gap. 

And advance our understanding we must. We know that the first few years of a child’s life are crucial, and that poverty can be incredibly destructive. The attainment gap is closing slowly, as the result of a decade of hard work by educators and policy makers, but a child’s background still determines their chances of success in too many cases. Disadvantage blights childhoods, and because school attainment is so linked to life chances, disadvantage works via the attainment gap to blight futures too. 

Save the Children is determined to change this, and we are in good company with schools, governments, NGOs, charities and community organisations working for equality of opportunity all over the country. We have been working to support parental engagement in children’s learning since 2010, because we know how important parents are to a child’s learning and development. Incredible things can happen when you unleash the power of parents, particularly for disadvantaged children.

The FAST programme has been a hugely important part of this mission. A manualised, 8-week programme of family activities, FAST aims to tackle inequality by strengthening families, and their ability to support children’s learning and emotional development. We have travelled the length and breadth of the UK and with the help of our donors, trained and supported 564 schools to run the programme, reaching 31,500 children. We’re incredibly proud of that impact.

I helped to run FAST in a north London primary school myself. It was challenging, but totally worthwhile; I could see families growing stronger and a real change happening in just a few short months. Parents talked about feeling less isolated and having new friends at school. It made me incredibly proud of the work Save the Children is doing, and our dedication to build and embed parental engagement in schools. It also reinforced what I’ve always firmly believed: that every parent wants the best for their children, that every parent really cares, but that the challenges of poverty and social isolation squeezes the space for this.

I also believe that we need to learn together, as a sector, how to best support parental engagement and look for every available learning opportunity. The FAST RCT provides one such opportunity to advance collective understanding. As an organisation committed to learning and evaluation we were ambitious with this and looking at data from 158 schools, it was one of the larger RCTs involving primary schools.

The RCT found that FAST can be an effective mechanism for engaging parents in their children’s early education. FAST was also shown to have a positive impact on children’s social and behavioural outcomes, remarkably, for the whole year group and not just the children who participated. 83% of parents that began FAST attended six or more sessions, which is an unusually high retention rate. There are great lessons to be learned from FAST’s ability to capture parents’ imaginations and keep them coming back week after week.

The RCT also highlighted some ways that delivery challenges could be reduced, and pitfalls to avoid, which we will be factoring into programme design going forward.

Although parental engagement has a proven association with pupils’ success at school, evidence about exactly how to harness those benefits is less conclusive. The FAST RCT results did not show that FAST improves academic outcomes in Key Stage 1 assessments. We’re disappointed, but we know that having an impact on attainment strong enough to be measured in an RCT is a big ask from a short programme. It’s a tough ask for programmes and interventions generally; the emerging evidence suggests this requires specific activities focused on learning.

We are now taking the RCT findings and our experience of delivering FAST and applying them to our Families Connect programme, another school-based parental engagement programme with a focus on literacy, numeracy and social and emotional learning. We are already embarking on another RCT, as we have learned so much from this one, this time looking at the impact of Families Connect. We are also working closely with Families and Schools Together, inc, the international owners of FAST, to feed into its long-term development.

We are so grateful to everyone who has been involved in the FAST RCT. It is a huge achievement to have successfully delivered such an ambitious trial and it has made an important contribution to the evidence base. The findings will continue to inform our parental engagement work, and we will never shy away from testing what works and revising our practice to get the very best outcomes for children.