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Choose your parents wisely


12 Jun 2016

Eminent child psychiatrist Sir Michael Rutter was once asked what advice he would give to a child growing up today. “Choose your parents wisely”, he said, emphasising that parenting is a crucial determinant of children’s long-term life-chances.

From the work of Kathy Sylva, Sue Roulstone and others we know, moreover, that this is not just about affluence; it is what parents do to support their child’s development, rather than what they earn, that matters.

EIF’s report Foundations for Life: What works to support parent-child interaction in the early years summarises research showing that it is possible to change what parents do, through the application of evidence-based programmes. The review is a welcome reminder of the importance of positive parenting and a counterbalance to childcare policies that increasingly focus on short-term labour market outcomes for parents rather than the longer-haul child outcomes that follow the best start at home. Never forget, for example, that the second largest contribution to age 11 attainment in English, after mothers’ level of education, is the quality of the early home learning environment.

Thanks to the EIF report we have an up to date picture of what we can do to improve child outcomes through this environment and through parent-child interaction. We know what works. For me, though, the key issue is not so much knowing what to offer, but how. Successive governments have had varying takes on this. All have been troubled by uncertainty about whether the state should have a role in parenting at all, outside of child protection. The last Labour government, at least initially, came to the view that it should, but not through prescription. A thousand Sure Start flowers were allowed – even encouraged – to bloom, in the shape of diverse practices in Children’s Centres. When initial evaluations were unpromising and the flowers began to wilt, these practices were nurtured via professionalisation of the workforce – through the National Academy of Parenting Practitioners,  a toolkit of evidence-based plug-and-play programmes from which practitioners could  choose, and centrally-commissioned training in selected interventions.

Then came the coalition government, and Number 10’s observation that the problem in parenting was not necessarily one of supply, but of demand. A market model was applied, providing vouchers for parenting classes at Boots and other handy ‘outlets’. Take-up remained low, however, albeit beginning to increase in the last year of the national CANParent trial.

At the same time, the PM’s personal affection for health visitors led to a rapid expansion of that workforce, and the truly promising revival of the national Healthy Child Programme’s regular assessment touchpoints and graduated support offer. Now commissioning of the HCP by local authorities offers a unique opportunity to align the work of health visitors with that of Children’s Centres. We should be able to target need accurately and early, and offer support where the need is greatest.

In sum, we have tried destigmatising parenting programmes via open-access Sure Start Children’s Centres. We have tried providing the workforce with evidence, and professionalising it to ensure quality. We’ve tried normalising the offer for parents with vouchers.  We have the means of identifying need. Yet many families are still unlikely to engage willingly and confidently with proffered support. Stigma remains. Inertia remains – and affects us all. Why is it that I have had six (loveable but variously imperfectly behaved) dogs in my life but never once signed up for dog training classes? Why do I look after and worry about my grandchildren but not make the effort to go on a basic first aid course? Why – amazingly- do only 37% of working class and 44% of lone parents go to antenatal classes before the birth of their first child?

We underestimate at our peril the scale of the challenges involved in overcoming inertia. What the EIF review helpfully suggests is that maybe we should not try to in relation to universal support for parent-child interaction. The most successful interventions reviewed in the report are those that are offered when parents are actually experiencing difficulties with their child. Inertia can only be overcome by psychological pain.

Some of the approaches and methods of ‘assertive outreach’ led by family keyworkers,  being delivered now under the troubled families programme, suggest that ways can be found to engage families we have not successfully reached in the past, if practitioners have the time and skill to build the relationships on which support can be based. Another development that may help is the latest addition to the parent-child interaction landscape, the £215 million from the Big Lottery for A Better Start, the ten year programme which aims to improve child outcomes in highly disadvantaged areas by focusing on the conception to three age range, and by expecting local parents to have equal status to professionals in shaping how funding is spent and how services will be provided. New models of parent mentoring, volunteering and community involvement are developing and look promising. Parents will feel done-with, not done-to. This seems to me the key to engagement: parents reaching out to other parents, the trusted ‘person like me’ who can say “There’s this group we’ve got going so we learn how to develop our babies’ brains- want to come with me?”

So maybe the future looks like community-led, targeted provision. And for universal provision? I predict that it has to be delivered via social media. We need engaging film clips and soundbite messages about parent-child interaction, personalised to the parent and the age of their child, and delivered via the smartphone. And they need to avoid the nannying tone of much public health messaging. I once tried to develop this idea like in relation to children’s language development, along with The Communication Trust, in films narrated by Kathy Burke. The apps from Best Beginnings are another example.

Maybe someone clever could devise a way of stimulating the market for this kind of support via app vouchers, or similar? Maybe we need to spend money on a system with Google-like sophistication in matching what is offered to what is wanted and needed by the owner of the smartphone, at any given point in time? Maybe we could divert the millions spent on the hundreds of different leaflets and booklets produced for parents, which (however worthy) just don’t hit the spot? And maybe the next large scale EIF review in this territory will be of this new kind of personalised, technology-based coaching of parenting skills, rather than traditional ‘programmmes’? I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

About the author

Jean Gross CBE

Jean is an EIF associate.