Break Free

Speaking recently to an audience gathered for the launch of the
Family Well-Being Break model for group holidays, Janet Reed*
admitted that two years ago she would never have had the confidence
to do this. Back in 2002, Reed, was a 34-year-old single mum with a
long history of depression, going through a “horrible divorce”. She
was surviving on benefits and living in bad housing in Southwark
with no outdoor space. So she was taken aback when her Home-Start
volunteer put her name forward for the first Family Breaks

She and her two-year-old daughter spent six days in the Dorset
countryside with 12 families from similar circumstances, her first
holiday in five years. The break provided an opportunity to rest,
reflect and try out new experiences, supported by a team of
professional facilitators, crche workers, therapists and
counsellors, while having fun. Reed sees it as a turning point in
her life.

the forum that Reed addressed earlier this year marked the
conclusion of the two-year Family Breaks pilot project, supported
by a £180,000 grant from the Community Fund. The award was
made to the Family Holiday Association, a national charity
dedicated to helping disadvantaged children and their families have
holidays. For the pilot project, FHA worked in partnership with
holiday provider Veritas with referrals coming from nine Home-Start
projects in London and south east England, and Greenwich Women’s
Aid. The goal of the project was to contribute to preventing the
social exclusion of families. More specifically, the programme
aimed to: strengthen the ability of families to cope with their
difficulties; strengthen their capacity to contribute to their
community; and develop a model of holiday provision to families
under stress that can be replicated in other areas of the UK.

Up to one-third of British families have no annual holiday.(2)
So this concept of a “holistic” holiday takes the notion of a
family holiday one step further, adding an intensive level of
support, placing it firmly within the remit of the social care
agenda. It offers an innovative way of supporting vulnerable
families. Researchers from the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the
Institute of Education were appointed to evaluate the pilot
project, to explore how the process worked and identify the
benefits families and children derived from it.(3)

In the pilot project, 122 families participated in 11 Family
Breaks holidays. Home-Start was selected as the referral agent
because of its ability to provide continuity of support before and
after the holiday. Greenwich Women’s Aid was included to test how
the programme worked with families with various problems.

Families on low income or benefits who had not had a recent
family holiday, with at least one child aged over three, were
eligible. Referrals were directed to families living in stressful
circumstances, or with multiple difficulties in their lives, such
as disability, single parenthood, bereavement, or poor housing.
Given the nature of the holiday, referrers sought families who
might be open to new experiences, who were willing to accept
guidance from the holiday team, and were happy to spend time away
with other families.

Visiting a Family Breaks holiday, one is immediately struck by
the cohesiveness of the group. Staff, parents and children help
each other like one enormous family. There is a lot of noise and
laughter, and on occasions crying.

The day starts with a group meeting, accompanied by drumming and
singing, after which everyone disperses to their chosen activities.
There is a crche for the younger children, and a programme of
creative pursuits for older children. On recent holidays, one of
the most popular exercises was to devise a show to perform for the
elderly residents of a nearby nursing home.

Parents are free to choose their own programme from several
options, including massage, reflexology, art and music,
counselling, group work and parenting skills workshops. If they
prefer, they can simply relax or talk.

Taking such vulnerable families away is not without risk. It
requires a high level of skill on the staff’s part. That the
families so quickly feel able to trust the professional staff, and
gain confidence to try out new things is a tribute to the Veritas

Families were very satisfied with the holiday, and many
experienced longer term positive outcomes. Some of the key benefits
identified were:

  • The ability to manage stress.
  • Improved parenting skills and relationships within the
  • Increased self-esteem and confidence.
  • Encouragement of healthy living styles to promote
  • Stronger sense of community, enabling participants to build
    supportive relationships back home.

Families thoroughly enjoyed many of the activities and therapies
on offer during the holiday, even though at the outset many thought
some were a bit “weird”. Many families wanted to continue with them
when they returned home, but opportunities to do so are

Reed took a loan to finance a course in relaxation techniques.
For the first time since her teens, Reed has weaned herself off
medication, and though she still has “bad moments” feels in
control. She volunteers at her daughter’s nursery school, and works
as a part-time gardener, an interest which developed out of her
introduction to herbalism on the holiday.

Teaching parents (and children) skills such as massage to
practice on each other has helped some families continue the
experience. There is potential to extend such activities outside
the holiday setting. Baby massage is already offered by some Sure
Start projects, and is supported by the government as a “promising
intervention.”(4)  Schemes such as Home-Start or Sure Start could
include similar therapies for adults within their programmes at a
reasonably modest cost, relative to the cost of health service
treatment or social services support. Evidence from Family Breaks
suggests that this could prove to be very beneficial for families
suffering from stress.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the pilot project has been
filling the available spaces with families whose needs warrant the
added support. Reed is unequivocal in her view that she could not
have coped with a conventional holiday two years ago because she
was so vulnerable. She also says that when she went home, nothing
had changed. As she says: “Six days is quite short to shrug off
years of problems. I realised I would not sort it all out in six
months or in a year, but I made a mental list of what I had to do
to change my situation, and it is all now in place.”

Holidays as part of social care provision in the UK have tended
to be reserved for individuals with specific needs, such as
disabled or older people, rather than for families on low incomes.
Even if conventional holidays were accepted as part of a social
care policy, an argument must still be made to justify the added
cost of a supported holiday.

FHA would like this type of holiday to be available for low
income families as one of a range of options, offered according to
need. Drawing on the experience of the pilot project, FHA has now
developed the Family Well-Being Break model for similar group
holiday partnerships. It has prepared an information sheet
outlining the requisites for setting up a programme, and offers
support to groups aiming to replicate the model.

* Not her real name.

Valerie Wigfall is a research officer at the Thomas Coram
Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. She
specialises in research into families and children, and is
currently working on Department of Health-funded projects looking
at fostering in Europe and services for young people leaving


This article looks at the concept of supported holidays for
families in need. It draws on the findings of an evaluation of the
Family Breaks pilot project for the Family Holiday Association, a
national charity. The research found families were positive about
the holiday experience. Many derived long-term benefits from the
holiday in their ability to cope with difficulties and take control
of their lives, helping them work toward positive change.


  1. Home-Start is a charity supporting families with young
  2. N Hazel, Holidays for Families in Need: The Research and Policy
    Context, Policy Research Bureau, 2003. Available from
  3.  V Wigfall, Turning Lives Around: Evaluation Report of Family
    Breaks Pilot Project for Family Holiday Association, FHA, 2004
  4. DfES, Support from the Start, Research Report 524, 2004.
    Available from



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