Better outcomes for children, parents and society – why ‘family learning matters’

mother reading to her son

Improving the circumstances of families from deprived backgrounds has been a key policy focus of government in recent years, with large amounts of resources and funding having been allocated to trying to improve families’ outcomes.

One approach to achieving this, which can lead to positive outcomes for both adults and children is family learning – the importance of which is receiving increasing attention.

What is family learning?

Family learning has been described as “any learning activity that involves both children and adult family members, where learning outcomes are intended for both, and that contributes to a culture of learning in the family”. It can involve both formal and informal provision, such as engagement with programmes such as Booksmart or attending events at libraries and museums.

Parents may not even be aware that activities such as reading to their children from an early age, or singing with them, constitutes a learning activity. Unfortunately, research indicates that a large number of parents do not engage in these activities at all, despite evidence that a home environment which encourages learning and communication is as important an indicator of a child’s achievement as parental income and social status.

Research from the National Literacy Trust, suggests that “parental involvement in their child’s reading has been found to be the most important determinant of language and emergent literacy”.

With real concerns raised over children’s basic skills in recent years, family learning could be part of the solution.

Lack of basic skills

Last year, the National Literacy Trust highlighted analysis which showed that 86% of English constituencies contained at least one ward with “urgent literacy need”.

The latest edition of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy showed there was a seven point drop in P7 pupils who can write well or very well between 2012 and 2016. And in November 2016, 79% of Reception teachers in Wales surveyed for Save the Children reported seeing children starting school without the ability to speak in complete sentences. One primary headteacher highlighted the huge need for parental awareness and engagement”.

In comparison, primary schools in Northern Ireland continue to rank among the best in the world in maths. The latest edition of Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) shows that Northern Irish children are the best in Europe at maths, and sixth best in the world.

The education system in Northern Ireland prioritises a policy of Parental Involvement in Numeracy (PIN), and government policy is to impress upon parents the role that they must play in the development of essential basic skills. The government has also just launched its ‘Giving your child a helping hand’ campaign, which is aimed at increasing parental involvement in the education of their children.

As children spend only around 15% of their time involved in formal learning activities, i.e. in school, there is substantial scope for them to be involved in more informal learning activities that will benefit both their academic and personal development.

Benefits of family learning

Research has shown that family learning interventions could increase children’s overall development levels by up to 15 percentage points for those from deprived backgrounds, and induce an average reading attainment improvement of six months.

Survey findings published by Ofsted also found that participation in family learning courses improved children’s behaviour in class, as well as their relationships with their peers and teachers. Teachers also reported noticing improvements in their pupils’ confidence levels, and their communication and interpersonal skills.

For adults, family learning offers two key positive outcomes for parents: the development of their relationship with their child, and personal skills development.

As with children, the basic skills of adults in the UK remains a cause for concern. In 2016, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published analysis which suggests that around five million adults in England lack the basic reading, writing and numeracy skills required to complete everyday tasks. Similar deficiencies have been found in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Less quantitative evidence exists of the impact of family learning engagement on adult literacy levels. However, it has been found that the average portion of adult learners achieving a qualification on family literacy programmes is higher than those on standard programmes. An evaluation of the Family Learning Impact Fund (FLIF) found that 85% of learners taking part achieved some sort of progression through taking part in a FLIF course, such as going onto a higher level of learning, or new or improved employment.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has also highlighted a wider societal impact arising from adults taking part in family learning activities, in terms of participation in volunteering and community activities.

In addition to better outcomes for children, adults and society, family learning can also benefit the government. It is relatively low cost, as it draws on many existing resources such as libraries and museums.

Sheffield City Council, for example, has estimated that for every £1 they spend on family learning, a return on investment (ROI) of £7.58 is generated. This is down to the fact that family learning is a single intervention with the potential to achieve multiple outcomes – not only for parents and children in the present, but for future generations

Final thoughts

It could be argued that the socioeconomic benefits of family learning could help to ease the burden on government resources at the same time as improving families’ outcomes.

Clearly, the benefits of family learning to society and the government can’t be ignored – particularly with increasingly tight budgets.

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Involving children and young people in town planning

By 2050, it is estimated that nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas.  In the UK, this figure is expected to be closer to 90%.   This demographic shift, along with population growth in general, means that more children than ever are growing up in urban environments.

This has a number of implications for the town planning system.  Creating a ‘child-friendly’ environment requires much more than just ensuring there are enough parks and play spaces.

As well as having a fundamental human right to participate in decisions that affect them, there are clear links between children’s health, wellbeing and development and the quality of their surrounding environment.  Particular areas of influence include:

  • housing quality
  • road safety
  • the walkability of an area
  • opportunities for cycling
  • play facilities
  • access to greenspace
  • local amenities such as libraries and community/leisure centres
  • environmental pollution
  • community safety/fear of crime
  • access to healthy food choices

One key way to address this is to involve children in the planning process. As well as helping to create safer, more suitable environments for children to grow up in, involving children in decisions about their local areas has a number of additional benefits.  It helps to build social capital, helps children to form a bond with their home city, and fosters a feeling that they can help to make a change in the world they live in. For planners, involving children can help to provide them with a new perspective on how children use their environments, and highlights issues that adults may not recognise or fully understand – potentially leading to improved design.

Participation methods

Research published in 2011 found that children’s voices had been “notably absent from UK planning and regeneration policies throughout the past two decades”. Children’s participation in planning tended to be focused on services that were designed ‘for them’ rather than ‘with them’, and little attention was given to children’s roles in the wider regeneration agenda.

However, there are some examples of successful involvement.  Methods that have been used successfully range from formal mechanisms such as youth councils, child-led surveys and data collection, to informal ones such as photography, computer-aided mapping, model building and role-play.  Dr Jenny Wood reports that she had success with a delightfully low-tech method, where children were asked to annotate A3 OS maps with a range of stickers, post-it notes and pens, to highlight their likes, dislikes, routes to school and any other information they felt was important about their local area.

At the other end of the scale, some particularly innovative examples capitalise on recent technological advances.  These include the use of mobile phone apps to make traffic reports (see Case Study 1 below), the use of Minecraft (see Case Study 2 below), mapping their local area (Children’s Tracks in Norway) and the use of the SoftGIS methodology in Finland.

Case Study: Traffic Agent, Norway

A new app-based initiative in Oslo, ‘Traffic Agent’, directly involves children in transport planning. It enables children to provide direct feedback on road safety, based on their own experiences.  The app makes use of ‘gamification’ whereby users act as “secret agents” for the city, sending immediate reports on their route to school when they come across, for example, a difficult crossing on the street or an area of heavy traffic.

The project lead, Vibeke Rørholt, illustrates its impact: “I received a telephone call from the mother of a little boy who had reported some bushes that meant he couldn’t see when he was crossing the street. And two days later the bushes were cut. She phoned in saying he’s so happy that he could make this happen.”

Case study: Blockbuilders, England

Blockbuilders is an innovative method of involving communities, and children and young people in particular, in the town planning system.

Using the hugely popular game, Minecraft, the Blockbuilders team create a 3D representation of a local area.  The model is then used as the basis for consultation with the wider community, and can be interacted with and played with to enable communities to help design and shape their local areas.  Projects have included the development of Lewes Neighbourhood Plan, the development of a family-friendly park by Brighton and Hove City Council, and an interactive map of Brighton and Hove.

Common success factors for children’s effective participation

There is no one definition of ‘good’ or ‘effective’ participation practice – the most suitable method depends on the age of participants and the nature of the decision that they are being involved in. However, in their review of children and young people’s participation, the Ecorys project identified a number of common ‘success factors’ for children’s effective participation in planning and regeneration. These include:

  • Official recognition of children’s fundamental rights
  • Partnership working, e.g. planners, local government, academics, NGOs, community organisations and residents
  • Involving adults with knowledge and experience of young people’s participation
  • Utilising a range of diverse participation mechanisms
  • Understanding participation as a ‘whole’ process of learning and change
  • Openness and reciprocal learning between children and adults
  • An incremental and realistic approach to goal setting and developing trust/confidence
  • Visibility in the results
  • Embedding at different levels and spatial scales


Despite the compelling arguments in favour of children’s participation in the planning system, a number of barriers exist.

There is a general lack of awareness of the purpose, benefits or skills required for facilitating young participation among planners.  Children are often viewed as being incapable of engaging in a meaningful way, despite research concluding otherwise.

Children’s participation in planning is frequently still viewed as ‘special’, rather than as part of general community engagement processes.  It tends to be focused specifically on children’s services, rather than the wider range of universal services, and takes the form of consultation, rather than proper involvement in every phase of the decision making process.

A number of political and structural barriers also limit children’s potential influence – such as competing interests within the planning system and the short timescales often required for decisions.  This can mean that even when the intentions are there, planners themselves may have limited time or influence over the decision making process.

Future steps

However, these challenges are not insurmountable.  As we have seen, through its influence on the design of the urban environment, the town planning system has a huge impact upon the wellbeing and development of children.  By involving children in the design of their local environment, it can help create environments that support children to reach their fullest potential.

Children who are involved and interested in their local environment will hopefully grow up to become adults who are involved and interested in their local environment.  The town planning system is in a unique position to help facilitate this.  And as Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia has said:

If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people”.

Keen to make your city more child-friendly?  Next month we look at the characteristics of child-friendly urban design. 

If you can’t wait, why not download our briefing on Planning a child-friendly city – available to Idox Information Service members via our customer website.

Supporting those who serve – but what about the children?

By Heather Cameron

The valuable contribution made by the British armed forces is widely recognised and this Remembrance Sunday, thousands will pay an especial tribute to them.

In recent years, the government has taken encouraging steps to support Service personnel, particularly those returning to civilian life. However, there is also a need to address the effects of military life upon families and children, in particular.

Unique challenges

A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) highlighted the many unique challenges that military families face, including extreme mobility, inflexible work regimes, frequent separations, and the consequences of mental illness on the entire family. Children can be particularly affected, with significant effects upon the way they lead their lives both during the time of service and in the future.

Evidence suggests the demands of serving in the armed forces can put relationships under strain, leading to substantial demands on both spouses and children.

Children can be particularly affected by frequent moves that can disrupt their education and affect their friendships.

The CSJ report highlights a number of worrying impacts on children, including:

  • increased behavioural, emotional and disciplinary problems;
  • having to grow up too early;
  • lower academic attainment; and
  • social isolation.

The number of children affected by mobility is sizable. According to a study by Ofsted, the average mobility for Service children in primary schools is around 70% every year. Indeed, this figure may be even higher as there is no accurate record of the number of Service children in the UK.

The study also indicated that many Service children who move frequently do not perform as well as their peers and are less likely to achieve higher grades if they miss or repeat parts of the curriculum. There was evidence to suggest that the learning of many children had slowed or receded by continual moves and that they needed additional support to catch up.

As the CSJ argues, “education is one of the most important factors that will help military children after their family leaves the Armed Forces”. It is therefore vitally important that they receive the support they need.


Some positive steps have been taken to provide service children with additional support.

In June 2014, the government introduced a Pupil Information Profile (PIP), which provides some basic information for teachers about children from military families making the transition between schools. It is suggested that these, along with Moving Schools Children’s Activity Packs (filled in by the child and sent to the school) have gone some way to addressing the alarming lack of communication between schools.

However, it is also noted that the poor transfer of information between schools remains a problem as the PIP still only requires very basic information and both the PIP and Activity Packs rely on parents and teachers being aware of their existence.

A number of important outcomes have been achieved through the government’s Armed Forces Covenant, including a Service Pupil Premium (SPP) in England so that 60,000 Service pupils in state schools get extra support. The SPP acknowledges that Service children need more assistance. Thus, since 2013, in addition to the Pupil Premium, the government has also offered a SPP of £300 a year per child of Service personnel on the school roll.

Similarly to the PIP, this also relies on parents informing the school that one of them is in the Service. With no accurate record of the number of children in need, it is therefore not possible to know whether children and schools are receiving the extra assistance required.

Looking forward

Clearly, important steps have been taken and the CSJ applauds the government’s commitment to do more on children’s education. However, it is also clear that “the government has further to go to support the service family as a unit.

The report therefore sets out a series of recommendations for improvement in support for military families, including several targeting children’s education. In particular, it calls for increased stability of education for Service children and greater support for transitory children, their parents and the schools.

If implemented, the CSJ describe their recommendations as an opportunity for the government to build on the good work already done, which “would provide a great service to the men and women who, in turn, provide a great service to us.”

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Tourism – is it “killing neighbourhoods”?

deck chairs at the seaside

By Heather Cameron

Today is World Tourism Day (WTD), the aim of which is “to foster awareness among the international community of the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic value.”  (United Nations)

Commencing on 27 September 1980, WTD is celebrated each year with fitting events based on themes selected by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly. The theme for 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. The UNWTO says tourism can contribute to all three dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – as well as the 17 UN sustainable development goals. It argues that in addition to driving growth, the tourism sector also improves the quality of people’s lives.

However, a recent wave of anti-tourism protests across Europe suggests some disagree.

Anti-tourism sentiment

Much of the focus of anti-tourist sentiment during the summer has been in Spain, where a record 75 million foreign tourists visited last year – up 10 million on 2015. Catalonia hosted more visitors than any other. Estimates suggest an extra 30 million people descended on Barcelona, where radical groups have been reported slashing tyres of rental bikes and a tour bus. The tour bus was also reportedly adorned with the slogan “tourism is killing neighbourhoods.

As the number of tourists has been growing exponentially, so too have the tensions over this surge, coupled with the impact of holiday lets on the local housing market and thus local communities.

Majorca has also experienced protests from citizens against mass tourism. Here concerns have been raised over the number of drunken visitors and the rental of apartments to non-locals, reducing the number of places for locals to live and driving up house prices.

Rising rents and the impact on the environment have been cited as of particular concern among local communities.

Social and environmental impacts

Such concern is by no means a new phenomenon.

A 2012 report on the impacts of tourism on society found that while tourism generates both wealth and jobs, it has also been seen to have negative impacts on socio-cultural values and environmental assets of host communities.

At the same time as bringing people from different backgrounds, cultures and traditions together, due to globalisation, it is argued, tourism has led to many communities losing their cultural identity and giving way to a ‘Disneyfication’ of their town or village.

And while tourism has contributed to the creation of national parks and protected areas, it has also been blamed for increased pollution. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the three main environmental issues of tourism are the depletion of natural resources, pollution and physical degradation.

It is suggested that the main problem emanating from these impacts is that the host community picks up the tab for any damages to the environment and local culture.

Tourism clearly generates a variety of consequences, both positive and negative. It is therefore something that requires careful management.  As the 2012 report concludes, “Tourism development should be part of an economic development and must be done in a manner that is sustainable.”

Sustainable tourism

The focus of this year’s World Tourism Day therefore seems particularly apt. As the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has highlighted, this provides a unique opportunity for travel and tourism to come together to address the challenges set out in the UN’s sustainable development goals, and for the sector to address the issues of climate change, physical degradation and disruption that leaders from both inside and outside of tourism consider to be of the highest priority.

Progress has certainly been made, as the WTTC has reported:

  • travel and tourism companies were 20% more carbon efficient in 2015 than they were in 2005;
  • the sector is on course to reach a target of cutting CO2 emissions by 50% by 2035; and
  • the sector is on course to reach the target of 25% reduction by 2020.

However, as the recent anti-tourism sentiment indicates, more needs to be done to manage growth in a sustainable manner.

Final thoughts

Sustainable planning and management is clearly important to ensure the long-term viability of the tourism industry. And as the sector represents 10.2% of global GDP and supports 1 in 10 jobs globally, it is too important not to get right.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like to read some of our other tourism-related articles.

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Universal Credit – “forcing many into debt”

Jul 07 Dealing With Debt - Magnifying Glass

By Heather Cameron

“The biggest change ever made to the benefits system… is currently failing too many people and forcing many into debt.”

This is the conclusion of a new report from Citizens Advice on Universal Credit (UC). It warns that the roll-out should be paused to allow ‘significant problems’ to be fixed.

What is Universal Credit?

UC was introduced in 2013, with the aim of simplifying the benefits system, making transitions into work easier and making every hour of work pay. UC replaces six means-tested benefits and tax credits with one benefit, to be paid in arrears, as a single household payment, on a monthly basis.

The objective of UC is to help people on low incomes or not in work to meet their living costs. It affects a range of people, both employed and unemployed, disabled people with health conditions, single people, families, homeowners and renters.

Roll-out so far has been gradual but the process is to speed up considerably from October. By the end of roll-out in 2022, it is expected around 7.2 million households will receive UC, over half of which will be in work.

With such a significant number of people affected, it is imperative that the system works in their interests. But evidence from Citizens Advice suggests the system has a number of flaws that need addressing to prevent 7 million households from facing serious financial risk.

And this isn’t the first time similar conclusions have been reached.


Back in February, a Guardian investigation found that policy design flaws in UC are pushing thousands of benefit claimants into debt. Former welfare minister Lord Freud also admitted to MPs that administrative problems and design issues with UC are causing around one in four low-income tenants to run up rent arrears, putting them at risk of eviction.

In 2016, an inquiry into UC and its implementation by the Public Accounts Committee highlighted the inflexibility of the payment systems which may cause financial hardship for some claimants.

Citizens Advice highlight three “significant problems” with UC:

  • people are waiting up to 12 weeks for their first payment without any income;
  • UC is too complicated and people are struggling to use it; and
  • people aren’t getting help when the system fails them.

The data shows that:

  • more than one in three people helped on UC by Citizens Advice are waiting more than six weeks to receive any income, with 11% waiting over 10 weeks;
  • nearly a third of people helped have to make more than 10 calls to the helpline to sort out their claim;
  • 40% of people helped said they were not aware they could get an advance payment to help with the initial waiting period for their first payment;
  • over half of the people helped borrowed money while waiting for their first payment; and
  • UC clients are nearly one-and-a-half times as likely to seek advice on debt issues as those on other benefits.

A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation similarly highlighted the issue of waiting time, arguing that it required immediate action.

While Citizens Advice support the principles of UC, it argues that pushing ahead with roll-out while these problems remain will only put thousands more families at financial risk.


In response to these findings, a number of short and longer term considerations were highlighted where action will be needed to help secure the aims of UC by the end of roll-out. These include reducing the six week wait for initial payment, improving the support available for those moving onto UC, and helping people achieve financial stability on UC.

The charity recommends that the roll-out is paused while the government addresses the significant issues that have been highlighted. If improvements are not made, it is argued that both UC claimants and the government will face significant financial risks, which will increase rapidly if thousands more households move onto the benefit later this year.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous article on in-work poverty.

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Designing for positive behaviours

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

By Heather Cameron

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill, 1943

This much borrowed saying from the former prime minister was made during the 1943 debate over the rebuilding of the House of Commons following its bombing during the Blitz. Although many were in favour of expanding the building to accommodate the greater number of MPs, Churchill insisted he would like it restored to its old form, convenience and dignity. He believed that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, it has since been widely acknowledged that the built environment has a direct impact on the way we live and work, thus affecting our health, wellbeing and productivity. A new report from the Design Commission, which opens with Churchill’s statement, is described as “a very valuable contribution” to the debate on how the design of the built environment can influence the way people think and behave, “making a healthier, happier and more prosperous and sustainable country”.

Impact of design

The report, which follows a year-long inquiry, is described as providing “solid evidence in difficult areas” on what it is in the built environment that makes people’s lives better. Evidence was gathered on four specific areas believed to be the most important to national policy:

  • health and wellbeing
  • environmental sustainability
  • social cohesion
  • innovation and productivity

It is suggested that design acts at two levels: it can affect individual choices of behaviour, which can then affect health and sustainability; and it can affect the way people are brought together or kept apart, which can then affect communication and creativity, or social cohesion.

The inquiry therefore looked into how people’s behaviour, health and wellbeing are affected by their surroundings; the role design can play in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviours; the role design can play in social cohesion through its effects on creating or inhibiting co-presence in space; and how the design of work environments can drive innovation and improve efficiency, therefore tackling the current ‘productivity crisis’.

The evidence

The evidence highlights the built environment as “a major contributing factor to public health”. A range of public health issues, including air pollution and obesity, were suggested to be directly linked to factors within the built environment. Other recent research has similarly highlighted this link between health and urban design.

Evidence of the potential for design to positively influence sustainability behaviours, such as greater cycling and walking activity, was also highlighted, with New York cited as a good practice example.

Providing evidence on social cohesion, a senior university lecturer stated that “to divorce the physical from the social environment is inappropriate”. Other submissions referred to the “alienating effects” of various aspects of modern corporate life on civic participation, including estate management, crime and safety, the perceived negative impacts of poorly-conceived urban planning and poor or no maintenance.

Well-designed places, on the other hand, are suggested to improve access and facilitate social cohesion. Nevertheless, the evidence also noted that regardless of how well designed a place may be, “neglecting its aftercare will lead to antisocial behaviour and environmental damage.”

The relationship between the built environment and productive behaviours is supported by substantial evidence, according to the report. In the context of the UK, a lack of access to daylight and fresh air is cited as a reason for offices failing to get the best out of their workers. One study cited, indicated an increase in levels of both wellbeing and productivity in office environments with so-called ‘natural elements’.

Policy – “muddled and fragmented”

While there is evidence of good practice throughout the UK, a principal argument from the report is that more needs to be done.

Policy making for the built environment has traditionally been “muddled and fragmented”, according to the report. It suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the significance of the influence of the built environment on behaviour among policy makers at all levels and therefore makes recommendations for central government, local government and the private sector.

It argues that the relationship between government and local authorities requires reconsideration, calling for greater power at local government level.

Despite encouraging steps with regard to devolution in positively impacting behaviour and quality outcomes, such as in London, it is suggested that more can be done in terms of better collaboration between all stakeholders.

It is also noted that as national policy will be now be conducted in the context of Brexit, adaptation of the regulatory regime will be required.

Final thoughts

The key message from the Design Commission’s inquiry is evidently that the design of the built environment is particularly important in the context of current challenging times for the UK:

 “The way we design our built environment could be one of our greatest strengths in navigating the course ahead… If we get this right, we can build a Britain that is healthier, happier and more productive.”

If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in some of our previous posts on related topics:

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Who am I? The importance of life story books for looked after children

paper family on hand

By Heather Cameron

Every adopted child in the UK should have a life story book – an account of a child’s life in words, pictures and documents containing information on the child’s birth family, care placements and reasons for their adoption – which is given to them and their new family when preparing for a permanent placement.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to create life story books for all adopted children, providing them with a sense of identity and understanding of their early life before adoption. They are a well-established practice in the UK and most local authorities provide guidance on preparing them.

However, research has found that the quality of life story books varies hugely.

Variation in quality

The research, conducted by the Voluntary Adoption Agency, Coram, in collaboration with the University of Bristol, focused on adopters’ perspectives on their children’s life storybooks, which it identified as lacking from the academic literature.

Although adopters welcomed the idea of life story books, they were critical of their execution. And despite accounts of positive experiences, there was a broad consensus that:

  • many books were of poor quality;
  • children had been poorly prepared to explore their histories;
  • adoption professionals and agencies did not seem to prioritise life storybooks; and
  • adopters felt poorly prepared in how to use and update life storybooks with their children.

While 40% of adoptive parents said their books were ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, a third said they were ‘terrible’.

Issues were raised around lack of communication, opportunity to provide input and what was included in the books. One adopter said “We did not have the opportunity to discuss but what I would have said was this is rubbish – all of it is rubbish”. Another said “I can never show my daughter hers because there is stuff in there that I don’t ever what her to see”.

Another theme to emerge was an excessive focus on the birth family, foster family or social worker rather than the child, and the use of inappropriate language.

For those who regarded their books in a positive light, they believed the story was told well, was age appropriate and honest, and didn’t construct a ‘fairy tale’ that would give the child an unrealistic view.


For adopted children, life story books can be key to providing details of their history and background, providing continuity in their life histories and preparing them for a permanent placement.

Often, they are the only thing an adopted child has by way of personal, accurate and detailed information on their past. As one mother commented on the importance of birth photos, “It’s all they have left of their own babyhood”.

Done well, they can be invaluable, as described by one adopter:

‘a good quality life storybook builds a bridge back to that huge part of her that we didn’t see and it is her main link to her past’

It has therefore been argued that life story work should be prioritised and appropriate support provided.

Ingredients for success

Coram’s research highlighted several key things for successful life story work; one being having staff dedicated to life story work.

Bournemouth has been highlighted as an example of good practice for their life story work. Their separate adoption department appointed a dedicated family support practitioner to take on responsibility for the life story books for children adopted in Bournemouth.

In 2012, the council received an ‘outstanding’ rating by Ofsted and was named as joint adoption service of the year.

Also highlighted by the research, was that gaps in the narrative were not helpful, and support for adopters is paramount, as is training for social workers.

To improve the quality of life story work across the board, Coram’s report urges adoption agencies to make considerably better use of life story books and invest in improved training for professionals, while monitoring the quality of books produced and providing better access to support and guidance for adopters to engage in such important work with their children over time.

Bournemouth illustrates the importance of doing life story work well. And as the research concludes, “linking a child’s past and present is crucial ‘bridging’ work in enabling permanence in placements”.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on kinship carers and the value of foster care.

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Hidden in plain sight – the value of green spaces

jardin public

By Heather Cameron

They may be something most of us see every day but take for granted – the area of green space we pass on our way to work or frequent in our lunch break. And although we might make use of such spaces on a regular basis, is the true value of them really understood?

As highlighted by a recent report from the Land Trust, green spaces provide even more to society than we often think about.

Wider value

It has long been recognised that green spaces provide multiple benefits to communities and wider society, but there has been limited robust evidence on their wider economic value. The Land Trust report highlights that the services delivered by soil, grass, flowers, trees and water provide society and the economy with significant benefits.

It suggests that several important functions are provided by these green spaces, including:

  • Reducing and preventing flooding
  • Cleaning our water
  • Storing and removing carbon
  • Cleaning our air, reducing air pollution

Such functions help to alleviate costs to local and wider communities, such as to the health service, other public services and local businesses. Previous research has similarly alluded to such benefits.

Independent research by UK scientists in 2011 highlighted the true value of nature in relation to the economic, health and social benefits, estimating that it was worth billions of pounds to the UK economy.

Other research has also shown that green space has been linked to reduced levels of obesity in children and young people, and that access to open spaces is associated with higher levels of physical activity and reductions in a number of long-term conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and musculoskeletal conditions.

The proportion of green and open space is also linked to self-reported levels of health and mental health, through improved companionship, sense of identity and belonging and happiness. And living in areas with green spaces is associated with less income-related health inequality, thereby reducing the effect of deprivation on health.

What the Land Trust’s report does differently, is demonstrate these widely recognised benefits in physical and monetary terms to help create a greater understanding of the economic contribution of well-managed green spaces.

Natural capital accounting

A ‘natural capital accounting’ approach was taken to translate these benefits into financial terms, taking consideration of the physical land, its quality, how it is managed, used and the functions it performs.

Two different parks – Silverdale Country Park in the Midlands and Beam Parklands in London – were used in the study to demonstrate this value. Overall, Silverdale’s annual natural capital value was estimated to be £2.6 million, with a return on investment of £35 for every £1 invested, while Beam Parklands’ natural capital value, based on a 99 year period, has been valued at £42 million – an increase of £21 million since 2009.

Other benefits provided by Silverdale include:

  • Nearly £400,000 per year of flood risk reduction benefits
  • An annual value of £82,000 for the park and its maintenance to retain and purify water
  • A wider annual value of £840,000 of absorbed and stored carbon
  • A potential increase of 113% in local air pollution absorption since 2011

Other benefits provided by Beam Parklands (primarily a flood defence) include:

  • Nearly £600,000 per year of flood risk reduction benefits
  • Nearly £800,000 per year of educational and health benefits to the local community

As two well-maintained green spaces, they indicate the importance of long-term investment.

Final thoughts

Perhaps these financial values will help people to better comprehend the true value of our green spaces. As the report notes, it is important to remember that they are “not ‘one off’ monetary values or price tags” but rather an indication of what our green spaces are worth and their benefits to both society and the economy.

Put simply, as the Land Trust concludes, “green spaces… are valuable to society”.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on pocket parks and green spaces.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

Government Transformation Strategy 2017 to 2020: has it been worth the wait?

Whitehall, London

By Steven McGinty

On 9 Feb 2017, and after over a year of delays, the UK Government finally published the Government Transformation Strategy 2017 to 2020.

It’s been a long time since the Government Digital Strategy was published in 2012. Therefore, it’s understandable that politicians, industry leaders and media commentators have been frustrated by the lack of a new strategy in 2016.

In January 2017, Iain Wright MP, chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEIS) warned that the UK risked being left behind and losing its competitive advantage in the digital economy because of its ‘absence of clarity and strategic focus’.

Similarly, Stephen Metcalfe, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, wrote a letter to digital minister Matt Hancock highlighting his disappointment at the lack of a government digital strategy.

However, now that the Government Transformation Strategy is here, what does it say and will it have a lasting impact?

A brief overview

According to Ben Gummer, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the Government Transformation Strategy is:

“The most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world, by a government that has already done more to transform itself than any other.”

It sets out the government’s aim to build on the success of the 2012 strategy, and to not only focus on improving the citizen experience but to change the way services are delivered. The strategy states that the government will achieve this by transforming:

  • Whole citizen-facing services – ensuring an improved experience for citizens, businesses and users within the public sector
  • Full government departments – enabling organisations to deliver policy objectives more flexibly, improving citizen experience, and working more efficiently
  • Internal government – supporting the collaboration of government departments and delivering digitally-enabled change more effectively

However, the majority of the strategy is structured around five main objectives:

Business transformation

Government departments have made significant progress over recent years.  The strategy explains that lessons have been learned through this service transformation process, and that there is now cross-government agreement on the key areas that transformation must focus on. These include bringing policy development and service design closer together and recognising that government services are delivered through a variety of channels (online, telephone and face-to-face).

Grow the right people, skills and culture

Since 2012, government departments have been recruiting digital, data and technology specialists to improve their digital capability. However, the strategy accepts that the public sector is working in a competitive market and that recruiting and retaining staff is likely to remain a challenge. Embedding a new culture is also identified as an important enabler of change, with several goals highlighted, including increasing civil servants’ knowledge of digital and improving digital experts’ understanding of government.

The Digital Academy, which was formed in 2014 by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), will be transferred (by the end of 2017) to the Government Digital Service (GDS) to create nationwide training opportunities for civil servants.

Build better tools, processes and governance for civil servants

Civil servants vary widely in how they work, including the digital technologies they use and their approach to policy development. The new strategy explains that the government will create a better working environment by developing common and interoperable technologies that can be shared across government and adopt a more agile working environment.

Make better use of data

Data is vital for providing services that meet the needs of citizens. However, the strategy emphasises that the government must earn the public’s trust in managing data safely, securely, and ethically.

Create shared platforms, components and reusable business capabilities

The government has already had some success in introducing shared platforms, such as GOV.UK – a publishing platform which brought together over 300 government agencies’ and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. The strategy outlines the steps to be taken to encourage the development of new technologies, including leaving large single contracts with IT firms – a practice which is deemed a barrier to providing better technologies for civil servants – and purchasing from a wider variety of suppliers, such as SMEs.

From digital to transformation

It’s important to note that the strategy’s title has changed: from a digital strategy to a transformation strategy.

Jane Roberts, strategy director at Kable, suggests that this reflects the government’s realisation that digitisation is not a process with a defined end date, but a ‘constant dynamic ongoing process.’ Government, says Roberts, now understands that digitisation involves more than just moving services online, and that whole scale change is needed, from encouraging civil servants to work more collaboratively (including sharing cross-governmental data), to digitising back office processes.

In addition, Roberts also highlights the need for digital services to be designed to cope with this dynamic process. This includes supporting the integration of new technologies – particularly those related to the Internet of Things (the use of internet technology to connect everyday items) – and responding to increased citizen demand for greater control over their personal data.

What does it mean for local government?

The Government Transformation Strategy makes no comment on the challenges facing local government. However, London Borough of Camden councillor, Theo Blackwell, suggests that the strategy leaves scope for a ‘digital settlement’ to be developed between central and local government. He observes that the strategy:

leaves the door open for this discussion to be starting and concluded in short order, kickstarted by elected mayors and combined authorities in May 2017, and building on the groundwork of the last two years”.

Mr Blackwell also sets out what needs to be done to achieve this digital settlement:

  • Support the ‘coalition of the willing’, as well as improvement – encouraging local councils who have already made progress with digital transformation to work together, as well as helping struggling councils to improve;
  • Open platforms and a new market for start-ups – enabling the development of platforms and smaller start-up companies;
  • Shared Resource – developing partnerships between local councils and central government, which fund digital initiatives jointly.

Missed opportunity

The strategy has also received a significant amount of criticism for its lack of detail and limited commitments. Independent digital analyst, Jos Creese, has described the strategy as:

“…a mix of re-packaged principles and refreshed ‘transformational government’ themes, coupled with some new but not revolutionary ideas.

Creese argues that there is a general lack of pace with government programmes, such as with GOV.UK Verify – an identity assurance platform that allows people to prove who they are when using government services. And – unlike Theo Blackwell – Creese believes that the lack of collaboration between central government and the wider public sector is a missed opportunity (particularly as 80% of public services are outside central government). In his view, the strategy should have addressed some of the fundamental challenges facing local services, such as healthcare and crime prevention.

Final thoughts

Although the Government Transformation Strategy has received a mixed response since it was first published, there are certainly positives which provide hope for the future. Firstly, it was important that the strategy was finally published to provide a clearer indication of the government’s future direction.  Secondly, in the coming months, the government will have the opportunity to provide greater clarity, and set out how they intend to achieve the praiseworthy objectives of the strategy and realise the full potential of digital transformation.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other digital articles

Planning for an ageing population: designing age-friendly environments


In the UK, increased life expectancy means that people can expect to live longer than ever before.  While this is clearly good news – and has a number of potential economic benefits – the shift in demographic structure towards an increasingly elderly population has a number of significant implications.

Following Wednesday’s blog post on the implications for planning of the ageing society, today we highlight some of the ways in which planners can help support the creation of age-friendly environments by influencing the design of the urban environment, transport, housing and the wider community and neighbourhood.

The importance of an age-friendly environment

Age-friendly environments are underpinned by three key factors:

  • Safety
  • Accessibility
  • Mobility

Such environments impact positively upon the quality of life of older people by enabling and encouraging physical activity and social connection.  This in turn has a beneficial impact upon their physical and mental health, and helps to tackle social exclusion – which can be a particular problem among older people.

Conversely, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) notes, poor design can have a negative impact:

“older people who live in an unsafe environment or areas with multiple physical barriers are less likely to get out and therefore more prone to isolation, depression, reduced fitness and increased mobility problems”

Creating an age-friendly environment

There are a number of areas in which planners may have an influence on the provision of age friendly environments:

  • the design of the urban environment
  • supporting appropriate transport options
  • the provision of age-appropriate housing
  • adequate neighbourhood and community facilities

Urban environment

In terms of the urban environment, green spaces are an integral aspect of age friendly environments.  Access to green spaces supports the physical activity of older people, makes a positive contribution to their health and wellbeing, and provides opportunities for social interaction.

Research has found that green spaces that are poorly maintained, perceived as unsafe, or contain potential hazards resulting from the shared use of parks and walkways are less likely to be used by older people.  Suggestions for improvement include the creation of small, quieter, contained green spaces and improved park maintenance.

Paths, streets and pedestrian areas are also a key planning consideration. Older people have greater reliance on pedestrian travel and are more likely to be physically active in areas that are pedestrian friendly.  The perception of safety also influences use – therefore, lighting and road safety measures can help to enhance this.

Adequate public toilet provision will also become an increasingly important issue.  Recent cutbacks have resulted in many public toilets being closed – in their review of public toilet provision in the UK Help the Aged noted that provision was sporadic. They found that the majority of older people had experienced difficulties in finding a public toilet, and even when toilets were found, they were often closed.

Transport needs

Responding to the transport needs of different groups will also present a key challenge. For example, an analysis of major European cities  by the Arup engineering consultancy found that older people typically make fewer journeys, use private cars less, public transport more (trams and buses in particular) and walk more.  In addition to this, older people’s typical walking speed – as well as the average length of walking trips – were lower than younger people’s patterns.  These differences must be considered when designing age-friendly environments.

The growing population of older people in rural and semi-rural areas, and the reliance on cars in areas with limited public transport options were also identified by Arup as important issues.

Age-appropriate housing

There will be increased demand for age-appropriate housing that meets the needs of older people as the population ages. People are likely to have longer periods of retirement and possibly longer periods of ill-health. As noted by the Future of an Ageing Population Project, unsuitable housing can damage individual wellbeing and increase costs for the NHS.

In order to meet demand, it will be necessary to both adapt existing housing stock, as well as ensure that new housing can adapt to people’s changing needs as they age.  Age-appropriate housing that supports independent living can reduce demand on health and care services, and positively enhance the lives of older people.

Thinking ‘beyond the building’

There is also a need to think ‘beyond the building’. It is thought that interventions that improve homes are likely to be less effective without similar improvements in the neighbourhood.  The ability to socialise and to access services is considered to be particularly important.

Therefore, planning for the provision of local shops and other community facilities such as GP surgeries, post offices and libraries, in tandem with an increased focus on walkable neighbourhoods and public transport provision, will help older people to be physically active and more independent.

Raising awareness

Despite a pressing need for action, the provision of age friendly infrastructure in the UK has been constrained by a lack of resources, and assigned a relatively low priority.  However, there is growing recognition of the need to raise awareness of the potential effects of the ageing population and its implications for the design of cities, towns and villages across the UK.

Planning departments cannot address these implications in isolation.  However, for their part, knowing and understanding the potential implications of the UK’s ageing population is a positive step towards the creation of a successful age-friendly built environment.

For further information, you may be interested in our other blog posts on the creation of age-friendly towns and cities and the economic opportunities presented by an ageing society.

We have also published two members-only briefings on Ageing, transport and mobility and Meeting the housing needs of older people.