‘Don’t bypass parents’

Government initiatives aimed at helping young people are likely
to fail if parents and families are not allowed to influence their
delivery. So says Mary MacLeod, head of the National Family and
Parenting Institute in an interview with Frances Rickford marking
Parents’ Week.

The government seems to have cooled in its attitude to parents
since it set up the National Family and Parenting Institute in 1999
and charged it with organising a national Parents’ Week. Publicly
at least, the blaming and punishing of parents for their children’s
behaviour has replaced earlier New Labour messages which
congratulated and promised more support to parents for the
difficult job they do.

But luckily for parents the NFPI was set up not as a quango but
as an independent charity, headed by a woman with no interest in
making herself popular with politicians. With a background as a
senior academic, and as head of policy then deputy chief executive
at Childline, Mary MacLeod is a formidable advocate.

A key concern for the NFPI is the development of policies and
services for children with little or no reference to their
families. “We found from our own mapping survey that there was a
divide between children’s services and services for families, which
we argued was unhelpful.

“We’ve obviously lost that argument because we’ve now got the
Children’s Fund, children’s trusts, and children’s centres, for

MacLeod isn’t suggesting children’s needs are always the same as
their parents, but she does argue that ignoring parents’ needs
undermines attempts to improve outcomes for children.

“It’s clear from what we know about families in need and
families in trouble that children do need some services
independently of their parents – like Childline. But in general if
you are planning services for children and you do not also think
about what sort of support you are going to give to families you
are going to miss one of the biggest determinants of children’s

The NFPI argued strongly, for example, that the proposed new
children’s trusts should have been children and families trust. “If
they only look at services for children they are going to miss a
large part of the picture.” And it’s not just a question of
semantics. Different parents need different resources to support
their parenting – for example parents from ethnic minorities,
parents of disabled children, and those who are ill or disabled
themselves. “The planning needs to take account of their different
needs as well as children and young people’s needs,” she says.

Specifically the NFPI wants central and local government to pay
more attention to consulting parents when they are planning and
developing services for children. Because, says MacLeod, “These
services are for their children – not the government’s children or
the local authority’s children, but their children.”

Children’s trusts should not only involve parents in the
planning of services but should also have a brief which goes beyond
direct services to children by providing, say, relationship support
to parents.

“We have a diagram of what we’d like to see available to
families in a well-organised local authority area. As well as the
crucial specialist services it includes workshops for parents in
schools at key transition points, befriending groups and other
means of networking with other parents. Because one of the problems
families face is that the threshold for getting into more
specialised provision is so high that a large number of parents
whose needs are really quite great cannot get access. That means
there is enormous pressure on services designed to be preventive,
so they in turn find themselves dealing with crises.”

MacLeod hopes that the children’s centres will offer the
families of young children an opportunity to network with other
parents, as well as the necessary services. She also welcomes the
decision to provide centres in the most disadvantaged
neighbourhoods, and points out that skilled and experienced workers
in settings where parents don’t feel defensive or wary are in a
very good position to offer support if they are struggling. “If the
people are good and well trained they can pick out a child who is
unhappy very easily, and have low key conversations with parents in
which it’s possible to say: ‘Well, this might be a good idea for a
bit of help’.”

Intervening at this stage in a way parents find helpful seems to
her a far better option than singling out children later on who are
deemed likely to go off the rails. Local authority chief executives
have been charged with organising local systems for “identifying,
referring and tracking” (IRT) such children by next year. MacLeod
explains: “I do have problems with this proposal because it is
based on what I take to be a misreading of the research evidence we
have. Children in need, children who are victims within families
and children who are at risk of offending are not different
children. I’m much more interested in picking up children and
families who are in difficulties from the point of view that these
are children who might need a bit of help.

“It assumes the consequences of intervention are always likely
to be beneficial but of course we know they are not, and one
negative consequence is labelling. There is a danger that the
child, the family, the school and everybody else begins to think
about the child as a certain kind of child, and those expectations
feed back into the way the child actually behaves.”

Whether the government did conduct any serious consultation with
parents, or indeed children, about IRT seems doubtful. And, as
MacLeod points out, parents may not be happy to co-operate with a
process which involves their child’s name being on such a database,
even to the extent of providing important information about the
child or family.

Another example of an initiative to help children which could be
counter-productive if parents are ignored is the Child Trust Fund.
Under this proposal the government would establish a trust fund for
every new-born child, encouraging parents and other family members
to invest in the fund which would give the child a lump sum when
they reached age 18. But as MacLeod points out, without well
thought out information, parents with little financial experience
and on low incomes might be tempted to invest money they can’t
afford – which could leave children without necessities.

Family poverty is another issue of great concern, as poverty is
the biggest cause of poor outcomes for children. MacLeod says that
talking about child poverty is much more palatable to the public
than talking about family poverty “because there is a sense in
which children are seen as deserving, and their parents as
undeserving. But children are poor because their families are poor.
Although welfare to work has helped many families out of poverty by
encouraging parents into work, it is important that families with
parents not in work – especially families with very young children
– have adequate incomes.”

The NFPI is also lobbying the government to change the way
parental leave is paid so that low income families are able to
receive it, and to reform the Social Fund because it can leave
families without essential household items, or repaying loans from
already very low incomes.

But it’s not just enough money families need. “There isn’t an
aspect of public policy that does not impact on the family. If we
want to get parents into work you’ve also got to  think about
issues like child care and transport. As well as the issue of cost,
transport problems mean long and stressful journeys for parents
particularly if they’ve got to go in one direction for work and
another for child care.”

Indeed, one of the main aims of Parents’ Week is to raise
parents’ profile and insist that their needs are considered in all
areas of public life. MacLeod says: “We want to make parents more
visible so services are planned to include and welcome them. If
families had more indirect support, there would be less need for
direct support services.”

– Parents’ Week is 21-27 October

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