Deborah Ghate is director of the Policy
Research Bureau, an independent centre for applied social policy
research on children, young people and families. She is directing
the national evaluation of On Track for the DfES.
Vincent La Placa is a research fellow at the
Policy Research Bureau with a strong interest in the family,
government policy and reform of the welfare state.
Across the developed world, policy and practice interest in
family support has burgeoned over the past 10 years. Driven by two
key green papers, Supporting Families (1998) and Every Child
Matters (2003), initiatives in the UK, such as Sure Start and the
Children’s Fund, are expanding local provision.
Yet there has been little research that systematically sifts and
draws together the mass of international evidence on the
effectiveness of parenting support. Most reviews either cover a
small part of the field in great detail, or else range widely but
superficially over the territory.
In 2003 the Home Office commissioned a review of the international
evaluation literature on a wide range of parenting support
interventions, drawing out key messages for policy, practice and
research. Drawing on more than 2,000 studies, the review provides a
broad overview of the field. The resulting report was published
last month together with an online database of some of the key
studies on which the conclusions are based.
The review found evidence of success for early intervention (the
primary prevention of parenting difficulties) and later
intervention (the therapeutic end of the spectrum). While early
intervention tends to deliver more durable outcomes for children,
late intervention is better than none and may be vital for parents
dealing with intolerable stress.
Both universal and targeted interventions have successful outcomes.
Open access services can help with difficulties at the milder and
more frequent end of the spectrum, while targeting is more
effective for parents in high-risk groups.
Brief, low-level interventions have successfully delivered
information and advice to parents, and can achieve change in simple
parenting behaviours, such as safety in the home. However, more
severe problems require longer-duration services, often accompanied
by follow-up or booster sessions. Successful interventions match
parents’ level of need with the type, duration and intensity of
programme. Success is enhanced when the intervention has a sound
theoretical basis. In other words, effective services have clear
goals and a clear model of the mechanism of change that will
deliver those goals.
Successful services tend to have clearly specified, concrete
objectives as well as broadly framed general aims, which also makes
them more amenable to monitoring and evaluation. Programme fidelity
also matters, and services are most effective when they stick to a
consistent delivery plan for all users, supported by a detailed
written manual to guide practitioners.
Many notably successful services have multimode designs – for
example, combining informal group discussion sessions with
one-to-one in-home support, and tapping into a variety of learning
styles for parents (videos, written materials, interactive group
sessions and so on). However, the mode of delivery (whether
group-based or one to one) needs to be carefully selected to
reflect the needs of users: group work may be too public for some
very needy parents.
Working together or in parallel with different family members
(parents and children, both parents and so on) also seems a
promisingapproach. It may even be counterproductive to work with
one family member only, as the learning achieved may be undone once
the service user tries to put it into action at home if all members
are not signed up to making changes.
Over and again research shows that services that pay close
attention to getting, keeping and engaging parents report better
outcomes. In other words, how services are delivered may matter
almost as much as what is delivered. Carefully planned content
counts for little if parents fail to attend, drop out or fail to
make a meaningful connection with the service.
Awareness of parents’ personal circumstances, including gender and
culture, is important for making services acceptable to
individuals, and a good understanding of the background problems in
their lives is an essential element of preparation. Indeed, until
pressing difficulties such as poor housing, debt and so on are
addressed, it can be difficult for stressed parents to benefit from
Parenting support in a variety of forms can achieve positive
changes for parents and children in difficulty, but we are not
always clear exactly how or why some forms of support are
effective, or which parts of often complex service packages are the
ones that contribute most to the positive outcomes.
And while the research suggests short-term change is often an
outcome of parenting support, we are hazy about whether the effects
of intervention are sustained over time.
We also have next to no information about children’s perspectives
on the effectiveness of parenting support, even though they are the
intended ultimate beneficiaries.
Much of the research still fails to capture robust evidence on
diversity within parents, such as the differential needs and
outcomes for fathers, or for parents from different cultural and
We also need much more robust, home-grown research. Much of the
evidence on which UK service planners rely comes from the US even
though the applicability of research results from the US to the
different cultural and social context of the UK is unclear.
The enhanced role of the state in recent years in scrutinising
parenting and supporting parents in difficulties only underlines
the need to know more about what most directly affects the success
of interventions – including the government’s wider economic and
Policymakers need to understand what promotes the effectiveness of
parenting interventions and develop policy that meets the aims of
parenting support services. This means continuing to address, for
instance, the social and economic inequalities which make parenting
more difficult, as well as expanding access to support services
throughout the family life cycle.
Parenting programmes are booming as never before, but what works
across the wide range of services that fall under the general label
of parenting support? Based on a review of international evaluation
research, this article looks at some of the key messages for
- P Moran, D Ghate and A Van der Merwe, What Works in Parenting
Support? A Review of the International Evidence, DfES 2004.
Available from DfES Publications on 0845 602 2260 or at www.prb.org.uk
- An executive summary of the main findings is also available,
and an on-line database of key studies can be accessed at www.prb.org.uk
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