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Creating change for minority ethnic families seeking vital support – and how you can help


27 Sep 2022

Providing effective early intervention means providing support that works for all families. But we don't know enough about how best to address some of the persistent disparities in outcomes that we see among many UK minority ethnic groups. EIF senior research officer Miriam Sorgenfrei introduces a new EIF project to extend our understanding of minority ethnic families' experiences and how local services are evolving.

To enable all children and young people to realise their potential, early intervention needs to be responsive to the needs of all families. While some programmes and interventions are targeted at specific groups or families with particular or acute needs, many important forms of early intervention, including local early help and family support, are intended to reach as widely as possible, to provide assistance to all those who need it. 

However, existing statistics reveal a landscape of disparate outcomes, or exposure to the risk factors that lead to poor outcomes, for minority ethnic young people across the UK. For example, children from Black and mixed ethnic groups are more likely to enter care than White children; Gypsy/Roma and Irish Traveller are less likely than children from other ethnic groups to reach developmental targets by the age of 4 or 5; and (according to 2018/19 data), Gypsy/Roma, Irish Traveller and Black Caribbean as well as Mixed White/Black Caribbean youths are most likely to be permanently excluded from school.

Early intervention, if delivered in the right way at the right time, can make a real difference for children and their families. But persistent inequalities point to important challenges for the way that early intervention and additional family support is being delivered. For now, it is unclear why these inequalities in outcomes and exposure to risk factors persist. That’s why we’ve made it a focus of our work to understand the experiences of different families and young people seeking support, and how to improve the services that seek to help them.

SpeakOut: working to understand the experiences of minority ethnic parents and young people

To provide a better picture of the key challenges minority ethnic families experience when seeking or receiving support, and to provide a platform for parents and young people to identify opportunities for change, we partnered with the Race Equality Foundation and Action for Children to conduct a piece of large-scale qualitative research, called SpeakOut.

101 parents and 59 young people completed a (mostly) qualitative survey. Participants could choose to submit voice notes instead of typing out responses, which enabled us to gather a rich data set. In addition to the survey, we conducted two focus groups for young people of different ages, and one focus group for parents.

While some participants had positive experiences with their local support offer, a set of commonly experienced challenges came through very clearly.

  • Experiences of discrimination and racism were commonly reported. There is emerging research on the direct impact that racism has on developmental outcomes. Moreover, these experiences overshadow the overall experience of seeking help. From the moment families and young people seek support, to interactions with intervention providers and practitioners, participants explained they were treated differently than their White counterparts, that they were stereotyped, and that they had to ‘work twice as hard to be seen as half as good’, as one parent put it.
  • Minority ethnic families were proactively seeking support, but encountered multiple barriers, including well-known issues with service capacity and long waiting lists. However, crucially, participants highlighted negative experiences around their first point of contact with services, such as council websites listing services that no longer exist or out-of-date contact details, or not receiving responses to email contacts. The most common issue related to accessing services was that participants felt they were not being taken seriously – that, as one young person put it, they had to ‘beg for support’ – and therefore failed to get support when they needed it.
  • Parents and young people also had challenging experiences in receiving services. Interventions were perceived as too short and too generic. Many participants highlighted difficulties building a supportive relationship with practitioners. Parents and young people told us that they did not feel heard, understood, validated or empowered. One parent highlighted: ‘There are big differences in the way the individual social workers acted, too – from the way they talked and engaged with me, which either made me feel bad or feel supported.’ Some participants felt judged by practitioners. Moreover, parents and young people found that services were not representative of the communities they worked with, and that many practitioners did not display cultural sensitivity or an understanding of cultural or religious influences on family dynamics.

Looking at these stark findings, it is clear that urgent change is needed. In reporting on our SpeakOut research, we concluded that:

  1. Services working with children and families must embed effective approaches to eradicate racist and discriminatory practices.
  2. To improve people’s first experiences of services, local areas must make the idea of ‘no wrong door’ a reality for minority ethnic children, young people or families who reach out for help.
  3. Early help and wider family support services must be designed to better respond to the needs of minority ethnic families.
  4. Workforce planning in relation to early help and wider family support services must include a focus on the skills needed to build trusting relationships with minority ethnic families.

Creating change: what comes next?

The roll-out of the Family Hubs and Start for Life programme is a unique opportunity to improve how local services work, including for minority ethnic families – it can help to address some of the ingrained inequalities and contribute to a more equitable support landscape. However, to make the most of this opportunity, it is essential to understand potential solutions to the challenges highlighted by families and young people.

We are currently undertaking research to understand how local areas can ensure local support works for minority ethnic families. Based on this research, we hope to make actionable recommendations for Family Hub coordinators and Reducing Parental Conflict leads that focus on improving service accessibility, experiences, and outcomes for minority ethnic families.

To do so, we need to understand local areas’ current experience. Our new research consists of a short survey to local areas, followed by a number of in-depth focus group discussions; firstly, to explore what kinds of initiatives and plans local areas have put in place, and secondly, to dig deeper and understand the barriers and enablers that local areas encountered in the process.

We will seek input from participating local areas on the information and guidance that comes out of this research, to make sure it’s relevant and useful. This new resource will be published in spring 2023, and can feed into Family Hubs coordinators’ planning decisions.

Tell us your story

If you work in and around local family support services, then we’d love to hear about your area’s experiences. To support us with this research, please complete our survey by Friday 30 September. Through this survey, you can also register your interest to participate in the focus groups happening in the winter.

Whether you have or have not conducted workforce training; commissioned specially designed or co-produced services; agreed organisational strategies that focus on improving equality, diversity, and inclusion; or collected data on whether families from minority ethnic groups access services, and what their experiences and outcomes are – we are keen to hear from local areas how they support minority ethnic children and families. We would like to hear about any small or large steps your local area is taking.

To register your interest to participate in the focus groups after the survey has closed, please get in touch directly.

About the author

Miriam Sorgenfrei

Miriam is a senior research officer at EIF.