Guest blog: Families come in all shapes and sizes, so must the services they access...
There's much public policy interest in funding only what works when it comes to public services. Nothing new you might suggest - especially if you remember the Modernising Government agenda. A number of initiatives are currrently afoot, including the Alliance for Useful Evidence and murmurings we might get a NICE for social policy. In the meantime, its heartening to see that the Big Lottery Fund taking a lead here - and Ceri's blog highlights that evidence-based public services might give the voluntary sector the opportunity to show what it can really achieve.
The recent publication of ‘Listening to Troubled Families’ challenges our idealised image of family life and offers many difficult insights into the lives of some of Britain’s most ‘troubled’ families. It shows that for too many, the cycle of disadvantage, drug and alcohol dependency and relationship breakdown are a fact of life, passed down the generations from parent to child. It also reveals the challenges of translating policy into practice, while some families are the perpetuators of anti-social behaviour, all too often they are also the victims of shocking episodes of violence, sexual abuse and neglect.
It is true that some families are prolific users of public services but many more fear the stigma of being known as a ‘problem family’ and do not reach out for the support they need. Our assumptions about the identities and the values of ‘problem families’ can be an obstacle to effective policy.
As the economic downturn begins to bite, more families than ever are feeling the strain. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that as the cost of living rises a family with 2.4 children now require an income of £36,800 a year to have a "socially acceptable" standard of living. Research from the Millennium Cohort study demonstrates a strong link between child development and the incidence of two or more family risk factors, often triggered by financial pressures.
So while rhetorically powerful the line between ‘problem families’ and ‘families with problems’ often dissolves in practice. Many families oscillate between periods of stability and crisis brought on by periods of unemployment, family breakdown and bereavement. This presents a unique set of problems for service providers. How do they support this group of ‘at risk’ families to get back on track before they reach crisis point and become locked into the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage described so powerfully by Louise Casey?
We simply don’t know enough about what works, and this is why the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) invested £26m in Improving Futures. Through Improving Futures we are piloting innovative child and family services that unlock the creativity of the voluntary and community sector, strengthen partnership working between public services and engage with those families that continue to slip under the radar, out of sight and out of mind.
The VCS’s role, position and power is often overlooked in this debate. BIG is funding 26 innovative partnerships across the UK, we are placing the VCS at centre stage to lead these partnerships, try out different approaches, and show us what works. Whether that be driving the ‘personalisation’ of services in Worcester, where families are offered a personal budget of £2,000 to take control of the services they need; working with schools and GPs in Camden to engage the hardest to reach families; or the four largest children’s charities in Scotland working together for the first time in Dundee to deliver integrated services, we at BIG think the VCS are part of the answer.
There is evidence to suggest that for many families the non-judgemental, localised and participatory services that are so often the hallmarks of VCS practice can be an effective addition to public service provision. To test these assumptions and build the evidence base for family services we have commissioned Ecorys and the University of Nottingham to undertake a major evaluation of Improving Futures and will be disseminating learning from the programme as it develops.
Families come in all shapes and sizes; surely now is the time for a full and frank debate about how we draw upon the complementary strengths of the VCS, public services and parents to give children the best possible start in life ?
Interested in finding out more about the Improving Futures programme and evaluation? Check out the website: http://www.improvingfutures.org/
Ceri Doyle, Director, Strategy Performance and Learning
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