Early intervention isn't just for the early years
Since the riots took place in summer last year, politicians, journalists, academics and other commentators have all been searching for explanations. One of the most popular conclusions was that the parents were to blame for bringing up their children without the necessary self-discipline and values. Why didn’t their children have the will-power to stay away from the affected areas and to resist looting or the values to tell them that it was wrong to devastate local businesses?
All of this speculation brought the issue of parenting back to the forefront of the Coalition Government’s agenda and in October 2011 David Cameron appointed Louise Casey to lead the government’s response to the riots, focusing particularly on creating new packages of support to correct poor parenting in the estimated 120,000 ‘problem families’ (first identified as targets of the Labour government’s Family Intervention Programme) and tackling antisocial behaviour.
However, the Coalition’s approach to supporting better parenting has not only targeted those families already labelled as a ‘problem’. As early as May 2010, the Coalition’s programme for government made clear their shared commitment to ‘early intervention’ to support vulnerable families through Sure Start and health visiting. Since then a number of high profile independent reviews commissioned by the government, led by Graham Allen, Frank Field and Eileen Munro have emphasised the huge importance of providing early help to support parents in their job of bringing up healthy, happy children with all of the social, emotional and language skills that they will need once they start school if they are to thrive.
Many of these ideas have been adopted enthusiastically by the Government. The 2011 DfE policy document ‘Supporting Families in the Foundation Years’, which focuses on the needs of children in the first five years of life, observes:
Graham Allen’s work has shown the need for a more consistent approach to early intervention for the neediest families, including getting early extra support to disadvantaged children and their families. We need to promote effective, evidence-based early intervention so that families receive the right help as soon as possible.
However, despite their professed enthusiasm for this concept of ‘early intervention’, there remains a major gap in the Coalition Government’s thinking around parenting. As we observed in The Home Front, our report on parenting that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg launched in January last year, the early intervention principle does not only apply to the ‘early years’. It means intervening to offer help and support to parents as soon as it is needed at any point in childhood, before problems are allowed to escalate. It is right that the Government should investigate how we can support children as early as possible in their lives but not to the exclusion of other age groups. It is a startling omission that the Government currently has no strategy for supporting the parents of school-age children who do not meet the threshold for receiving help from social services.
The Government’s response to the Munro review of child protection, published in July last year, recognised the need for better coordination of an ‘early help offer to children, young people and families’. It even went so far as to observe that this help should be available ‘when a problem first arises at any stage in life … Evidence shows that preventative services do more to reduce abuse and neglect than reactive services’. However, the examples this document gives for how such help might be provided revolve around Children’s Centres and youth services for teenagers, with nothing proposed for the 8-10 years of childhood that stretch out in-between.
As the universal service that reaches all children aged 5 and over, schools are the obvious route for providing support to parents of school-age children who are experiencing problems. However, Michael Gove’s 2010 education white paper ‘The Importance of Teaching’ was silent on the subject of schools’ role in supporting parents in their parenting role, referring instead only to the importance that parents should have a choice of school, and to a school’s duty to provide information to parents. This is a significant omission and an issue that has subsequently been highlighted by Ofsted’s evidence to Frank Field’s review on Poverty and Life Chances, which observed that ‘more remains to be done to convince some schools that parental engagement is central to their core purpose of raising attainment’.
Failure to intervene to improve parenting for school-age children also has clear implications for the numbers of children entering care. It was reported today that record numbers of children are being taken into care, with neglectful parenting being particularly responsible for this rise. Last year 27,310 children were taken into care and of these, 60 per cent were aged 5 or older. It is clear that poor parenting is not an issue that only affects children aged 0-5, therefore ‘early help’ parenting support services delivered solely through health visitors and Children’s Centres will be wholly insufficient given the large number of older children who remain at risk of parental neglect and low attainment. The Coalition Government needs a strategy for providing ‘early help’ services to struggling parents at any stage in their children’s childhood, and the obvious role for schools in supporting parents cannot continue to be ignored.