16 April 2024

Sunak can still honour his commitment to families

By Matt Buttery

The UK was once celebrated as a world leader in championing parental support, but cuts to funding have left politicians longing for the past.

With last week’s report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealing that children from low income families who grew up near a Sure Start centre performed up to three grades better than their peers in GCSEs, former senior Labour figures including Gordon Brown are demanding that Sir Keir Starmer create a new version of the programme in his election manifesto.

But political parties don’t need to revert to the past to support families or reinvent the wheel. Instead, they need to build on the existing frameworks by locking in future Family Hubs funding and extending support to cover every local authority in England.

For too long, the importance of parenting has been sliding down the political agenda. Now is the time to prioritise it.

Providing parents with access to early years support and high-quality services can help them to overcome key challenges. We have all seen the dire numbers on child mental health, with nearly half a million children waiting for mental health treatment across the UK. Urgent funding is required to alleviate these pressures and parents need to be better supported in navigating this subject with their children.

Research from my colleagues at Triple P has shown that most parents feel parenting is the most important job they will ever do, and yet 75% feel there is stigma attached to asking for help. Even after overcoming this, knowing where to find help is the next battle.

It is here that a fully funded Family Hubs initiative can play a crucial role in breaking that stigma and propelling the UK’s parenting provision forward. Offering a range of joined up services such as infant feeding, mental health support and parenting programmes like Triple P, Family Hubs provide a judgement-free space for parents to get additional help and improve outcomes for babies through to teens.

The issue therefore isn’t the framework, it’s the funding.

In 2021, the Government pledged £300m of investment to the Family Hubs and Start for Life programmes. With all 75 Family Hubs in selected local authorities now open, it is time for the Government to go further and not only commit to the rollout of the programme to all 153 local authorities, but also to ensure a national online rollout of digital parenting programmes.

Research commissioned by Triple P found that 87% of parents polled said they would ask for help, but only 37% would know where to find it. More than a third would turn to Mumsnet or Facebook for advice, rather than evidence-based support.

In an increasingly digitised world, it is essential that the Government brings evidence-based support to parents, allowing them to access help from the comfort of their own homes. This would reduce the stigma of asking for assistance and ensure greater uptake. It would also commit the Prime Minister to the pledge that he made at the commencement of his premiership – to build a society that values families.

There is international precedent for a national online rollout. In Australia, Triple P Online became available to every family with a child under the age of 12 in 2022. The rollout has been an emphatic success, with parents and carers reporting feeling calmer, more confident and having a better understanding of their children’s needs.

It wouldn’t break the bank either. With the current Government focused on creating fiscal headroom and tax cuts ahead of the upcoming election, an initial budget of £25m per year would enable the launch of a national programme in the UK that would reach hundreds of thousands of families every year.

It is time for parenting to be back on the political agenda. With families across the country facing ongoing economic pressures, the government must take action and provide vital economic resources to family services. Extending family hubs and creating a rollout of an evidenced-based online parenting programmes is a national priority – we literally cannot afford to ignore it.

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Matt Buttery is CEO of Triple P UK & Ireland and Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Warwick

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.