12 April 2017

How better parenting can keep families functioning

By Cristina Odone

“The family is important in creating the best environment for young people to flourish.” Some 97 per cent of respondents in a recent Bheard poll agreed with this statement; 84 per cent believed that the family is the bedrock of a successful society; 75 per cent believed the family was more important than schools, employers, the welfare state and the church in creating a better society.

The Legatum Institute commissioned the poll to accompany the research I carried out for them on parenting classes. Frankly, such faith in the family came as a surprise. Looking around, there is little evidence of a society that cares deeply about parenting. In fact, the rise in mental health issues, binge drinking, and drug taking would suggest that the family, far from being a bedrock, is a crumbling edifice. According to the Centre for Social Justice, family breakdown costs the Treasury £46 billion once you take into account the social services interventions needed to restore order to chaotic lives.

What to do? Successive governments have attempted to offer a solution in the form of parenting classes. The instinctive libertarian reaction is the right one: the last thing dysfunctional families need is government imposing on them its views of what constitutes “good parents”. Top-down interventions have little traction, especially when they are officially designed to target “troubled families”. (Could someone please shoot the bureaucrat who came up with that helpful label?)

The approach has been for social services to refer problem parents to these classes, with the result that parenting classes now carry a huge stigma and most mothers and fathers would run a mile from such courses.

And yet, when I spent several months last year visiting parenting classes up and down the country, I found that parents who had attended these classes found them – without exception – helpful. They felt that their relationship with their children had improved. As had, in most cases, the relationship with their spouse or partner. Considering that the Coalition Government ploughed £30 million into offering four years of relationship support to new parents, parenting classes are couples counselling on the cheap.

Moreover the parents I interviewed all felt they had begun to forge friendships on the course – which filled an important need, as so many parents feel lonely and isolated. They gained self-confidence too, which spilled into other areas of their lives, from jobs to job applications.

Despite such praise, many of those I spoke to found the delivery of parenting courses problematic. Once they overcame the potential embarrassment of deciding to enrol in a course that others viewed as a humiliating admission of defeat, they faced two additional challenges: accessibility and duration.

There is no central database of parenting classes. Local authorities know what they fund but there are other providers – charities and private companies, not to mention religious institutions – whose classes fly under the radar (in some cases worryingly so). Many of the parents who elect to take the classes now discover them only through word of mouth.

The other challenge is that the typical parenting class lasts 10-12 weeks. That’s far too short to properly embed good parenting skills and values. Parenting lasts a lifetime – or at least 18 years. Three months’ mentoring doesn’t even make a dent in the skills deficit most families struggle with. Moreover, many parents view the support the classes offer as vital to their well-being, and feel bereft when, after three months, they are on their own.

I have decided to set up a charity, the National Parenting Trust (NPT), to address these needs. The charity’s programme will act as a bolt on to existing classes, and rely on local trained volunteers. These volunteers will sit with parents through the (typically) 12-week course, then lead the parents into a less formal group at a local venue (someone’s home, a coffee shop, a church hall) where discussions will focus on parenting. The classes will use material especially designed for the purpose by Family Links, the national parenting charity, and Gary Lewis, the inspirational head of Kings Langley School in Hertfordshire. His approach is based on character – and it’s transformed a sink comp into a shining beacon of academic excellence.

The volunteers will lead the groups for as long as participating parents feel they need – this is great for generating and promoting the elusive “social capital” that all politicos love.

It will prove a money-saving initiative: the volunteers will be trained in raising the alarm when they spot any potential issue well before this becomes a serious problem in need of state intervention. Serious usually means hugely expensive: social services working with a family costs on average £330,000 per family per year. Compare that with training a volunteer through NPT – £130,000 for 40 volunteers who will cover 400 parents over many years.

Because of its benefits for the wider neighbourhood, local businesses as well as local authorities may well wish to invest in the NPT. Surrey County Council already has: it is rolling out a pilot project across all of its district wards. Four hundred parents – middle class as well as disadvantaged – will take part. Surrey Care Trust, a local volunteering charity, will train the volunteers to lead the parents into informal fortnightly sessions.

My guess is that the NPT will transform parenting classes – peeling off the stigma of conscription and introducing the idea of continuous local support. My hope is that it will transform parenting, too.

Cristina Odone is director of the Centre for Character and Values at the Legatum Institute