Switched on programmes

Policies and programmes to support parents have expanded rapidly in
the past few years. The 1998 Supporting Families green
paper was an early indication of serious government attention, and
this has been followed by a series of developments, from the Sure
Start initiative to the latest family support grant scheme for the
voluntary sector. Within many of these developments there has, in
turn, been a steady growth of parenting programmes. These provide a
series of classes for parents, normally where there are problems in
child care, that are designed to help them deal with day to day
parenting and improve their own and their children’s lives.

The programmes have developed in community settings, as part of
specific child/parent support projects, and also as the key element
of parenting orders delivered by youth offending teams. There are
now a wide variety of such programmes, but are they successful, and
what issues are likely to face them over the coming years?

Parenting programmes have predominantly focused on younger
children. Help with pre-school children formed the great majority
of the early work, and this age group continues to be the main
focus for most programmes. Nearly all of the research is in this
area, a point which needs bearing in mind when considering the
effectiveness of programmes trying to help parents with teenagers.
The evidence from research is that programmes can be helpful for
parents – or at least mothers – and their children. In common with
most other interventions in social welfare the research is quite
thin considering the widespread nature of the problem and the large
sums of money going into the programmes. Without the research there
is a possibility of significant waste due to wellmeaning but
ineffective work.

Within our rather limited knowledge what do we know about
effectiveness? The first clear finding is that programmes need to
provide practical ideas, and to last a reasonable length of time,
with 20 hours or more of input. The second is that key elements of
the programme need to be present, including good work on praise,
reward, and handling misbehaviour. A third finding is that
programmes that seek to have a collaborative, rather than
hierarchical, relationship between staff and parents are more
successful both in keeping parents engaged and in their eventual
outcomes. These elements can be taught to staff, and if the
programme is to be effective they need to be covered properly. So
the training, monitoring and support of staff are also important.
You can invent your own system, but you will not have the backing
of research evidence for its effectiveness if you do not have some
specific components present in the programme.

When programmes are soundly constructed they seem applicable in
quite testing circumstances. For example, Stephen Scott and his
colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, working in a
tough inner city area, have shown how a relatively simple parenting
programme that follows research guidelines, can result in
impressive outcomes. Using a version of a programme based on the
work of Webster Stratton there have been substantial improvements
for younger children and parents, all achieved at relatively low
cost. Parents provide a clear message of how the programme
contributes to improved child care, and as one put it “he doesn’t
want to do it… I praise him, I hug him, I kiss him, then he goes
and he did it”.

Programmes for parents with teenagers have even less research to
guide them. While it seems likely that some of the elements of the
programmes addressing younger children will be relevant, there are
clearly very different influences at work in the lives of teenagers
compared with toddlers. The Crime and Disorder Act, and the
creation of parenting orders, has led to a substantial increase in
programmes for this age group. Our own study at the University of
Sheffield on the implementation of the act showed the enormous
variation between youth offending teams in the number of parenting
orders and in the type of programmes that they run. On the other
hand the views of parents about the programmes, even when they were
sent compulsorily on them, were generally positive. They recognised
the reluctance they would have had, and as one mother put it: “To
be honest if it had been voluntary I would have intentions of
going, but I would have been too busy doing my washing or
something, and I would think I can’t make it this week, I’ll try

The young people on the YOT programmes reported behaviour change on
the part of their parents, giving similar clear indications as in
the younger age programmes of the ways that parental practice could
potentially generate real change in the young person. Here is one
young person’s view following the programme for his parents:
“Élike if we’re grounded. She used to ground us. But she
wouldn’t stick to it, ‘cos we’d go on. No, she used to give up and
let us off ‘cos we’d be going on. But she sticks to it now.”

But the young people, as well as parents, grappled with the issue
of the fairness of compulsion. One young person summed up the
issues as follows: “It was me that had done the crime and it was
mum that was having to go to court, not that it wasn’t fair. But it
was me that had done it.”

The fact that parents, even when initially hostile, generally value
the programmes has been supported by the recent work of Deborah
Ghate and her colleagues, who also showed that there was some
evidence of change in the behaviour of the teenagers, and possibly
some reduction in their offending behaviour.

So is all rosy in the world of parenting programmes? Well not
really, as we still have a great deal to learn. We need to know
much more about which programme works for which group under what
circumstances. We need to work hard at making the connection
between the knowledge that we do have and the development of the
programmes. As in many other areas, the connection between research
and practice can be rather thin. We need to recognise that youth
offending staff are working in a challenging area where parents are
effectively sentenced to the programmes. While the majority of
parents are ultimately grateful for this, there is a good deal of
work to be done helping staff handle the difficulties raised by
compulsory programmes and helping parents to make the best use of
the programmes, perhaps via better options for voluntary routes.
There is also a need for more work on staff training and support to
make sure programmes correspond as far as possible to best

But there is much promise in parenting programmes and there are
good reasons to continue the expansion. There are important child
welfare areas to cover, such as helping parents of children who are
looked after, and work is already under way looking at the ways
that parenting programmes could help foster carers. Raising the
profile of parenting as a vital skill and difficult task is also
important. It could help make programmes more acceptable, and
probably provide some general increase in the quality of parenting
overall. For example, more work could very usefully be done in
schools and evening classes. It would even be worth thinking on a
grander scale – in New Zealand recently there was an excellent
series of television programmes on parenting which generated very
good viewing figures. Programme makers over here may well be
persuaded to do something similar. We all either provide parenting
or have been parented, and there should be a high level of interest
in well made television programmes, which could provide
“preventive” work without stigma, and indeed in a popular and
enjoyable way.

As well as targeting parents with particular difficulties, it is
important to reduce the stigma attached to parenting support, and
to make the discussion of the problems and joys of parenting more
acceptable. So there is much that is worth doing, and as long as we
accept that there is also much to learn, the future of parenting
programmes looks very promising.

Peter Marsh is professor of child andfamily welfare at the
University of Sheffield.

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