Families and Schools Together (FAST) is a family-strengthening program that helps build positive relationships between parents, schools and the broader community. At its core is an evidence-based eight week program designed to facilitate social support, greater parental self-efficacy, better child behaviour and improved educational outcomes. In the Northern Territory, the program has been run since 2005 in a variety of locations from remote communities to more urban contexts. The Gillen School, in Alice Springs, has used the FAST program since 2011 as a vehicle for engaging families with the school. The Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation’s (CRC-REP) Remote Education Systems project is investigating processes that work to support better outcomes for students in and from remote communities. While Gillen School is technically not a ‘very remote’ school, it shares many features of more remote schools – it has a high proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students (71 per cent), many students come from low socio-economic backgrounds, and student academic performance is well below the national average. Like many other remote schools it has, in the past, struggled to engage families.
The research conducted by the CRC-REP for FAST at Gillen occurred during the calendar year of 2013. The focus of this research was on the medium-term impacts of the program, at least 12 months after participants had been involved.
The research used a mainly qualitative approach. Semi-structured interviews and focus groups were conducted with 11 parents, six team members and six staff (these last had had no direct involvement with the program). Interviews were designed to elicit responses about the sustained outcomes of the program.
The data firstly pointed most strongly to sustained impact in terms of engagement and partnership between parents, school and the community. At Gillen, FAST has created an environment where participants now feel more comfortable with teachers and more readily connect with each other and the school community. Secondly, the improved relationship between parents and the school has been sustained. The relationship is reflected in improved participation in school activities. Thirdly, respondents observed how families were empowered through their participation in FAST. They observed how parents were more likely to take control of their role as parents. Fourthly, the program was seen to provide sustained support for families. Beyond the eight weeks, parents continue to identify ways they can access additional support from each other and the community. Fifthly, participants were observed to have much stronger and broader social networks than they had previous to their involvement in FAST. The qualitative results relating to attendance and behaviour were mixed. Some respondents noted positive changes and others either saw no connection between FAST and student behaviour and attendance, or were able to point to changes that were negative.