Successes of the Troubled Families programme ‘too good to be true’ says report

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies says the government's Troubled Families programme needs increased scrutiny

The successes of the ‘Troubled Families’ programme are “too good to be true” and few of the claims “stand up to any form of scrutiny”.

That was the verdict of a report published today by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

‘Troubled Families: The perfect social policy?’, authored by Stephen Crossley at Durham University, questioned the government-claimed 99% success rate the programme has had in ‘turning around’ the lives of 120,000 families in England.


“The only information relating to the effectiveness of the programme has been collected from local authorities who were delivering the programme, receiving funding for it and under pressure to demonstrate compliance with the Prime Minister’s timetable,” the report said.

It said that the intention from David Cameron to expand the programme into areas like child protection was a “cause for concern” before an independent evaluation had been published.

‘Troubled Families’

When the programme was launched in 2011, a family was defined as ‘troubled’ if it met three out of the following four criteria:

  • Are involved in youth crime or anti-social behaviour
  • Had children who were regularly truanting or not in school
  • Had an adult on out-of-work benefits
  • Cause high costs to the taxpayer

The families would then be considered ‘turned around’ if educational attendance went above 85%, youth crime reduced by 33% and anti-social behaviour reduced by 60% across the family, or a family member moved off out-of-work benefits and into continuous employment for three or six months, depending on the initial benefits.

In 2014, further details of the programme’s expansion were released, and the ‘new’ definition for a ‘troubled family’ was updated to be a family who met two of the criteria of being affected by domestic violence and abuse, had parents and children with a range of health problems, adults out of work or at risk of financial exclusion and young people at risk of worklessness, children who needed help, children who have not been attending school regularly and if the parents and children were involved in crime or anti-social behaviour.

“The substantial discretion afforded to local authorities in interpreting and applying the criteria, means that almost any family who comes into contact with, or is referred to, a non-universal service could fall into the category of ‘troubled’,” the report said.

‘Unbelievable results’

The report raised questions about the programme already being expanded, only months after an evaluation had been commissioned, and how ‘troublesome’ the ‘troubled families’ were, and whether it was saving as much as has been claimed.

“The 99 per cent success rate of the programme is, in social policy terms, unbelievable. Local authorities, which have been hit by cuts and lost large numbers of staff, have allegedly ‘turned around’ almost the exact number of ‘troubled families’ they were required to work with, at a time when those families will potentially have suffered as a result of austerity policies, cuts to local authority services and welfare reforms. No social policy can expect to be 100 per cent successful, especially one involving some of the most disadvantaged families whilst tied to such a short timescale,” the report said.

It added that the “perfect matching” between the government prediction of ‘troubled families’ and the amount found in each of the 152 local authority areas was “hard enough to believe”.

“The perfect matching occurred in spite of the numbers provided by the government being drawn from a small survey that was carried out five years previously for completely different purposes, and which didn’t include specific details about educational attendance or families committing crime or anti-social behaviour.”

The report called for the programme to be subjected to more public and political scrutiny.

Freedom of Information requests carried out by The Guardian found that more than 8,000 families in more than 40 local authorities had not received any kind of family intervention, but had instead been turned around “solely on the basis of data-matching exercises”.


Karen Goodman, a professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers, said continued investment and expansion of troubled families was “misguided”, and that “you’ve got to have anything evaluated”.

“Some of the basic principles to try and support those who are vulnerable is a very good and positive thing, so it’s not that we would be against that per se, [but] much more with how it was done and the context in which it has been done,” Goodman said.

Will McMahon, deputy director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said that claims made by the government about the programme “are not credible”.

He said the threshold to be ‘turned around’ is “remarkably low”.

“It becomes a meaningless exercise, except to say that we’ve got a 99% success rate, and it’s an intervention that can be broadened out to a whole new layer of people,” McMahon said.

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2 Responses to Successes of the Troubled Families programme ‘too good to be true’ says report

  1. Jo Fox November 11, 2015 at 11:43 am #

    I am pleased that we are beginning to talk about the efficacy of this program. I was troubled when I attended a conference where the early success of this program was outlined. It seemed to me that the reported successes depended as much on the resources available – high case worker numbers with low caseloads and great supervision, as well as the criteria they were using to select families – as it did on program methodology. It was then promoted as the ideal way to work in Local Authorities, overlooking the fact that we need to take and respond to all families, that the case loads in many authorities are still very high, that supervision can be patchy and that there is often trouble recruiting.
    It would be interesting to look at the environment and context into which some of these programs have flourished, as well as the results that they achieve with families. Systemic change within organisations is needed to produce some of the good results that we know social workers could achieve.

  2. Adam Birchall November 15, 2015 at 6:45 pm #

    Completely agree Jo.