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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Are smartphones damaging young people’s mental health?

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week saw the launch of Universities UK’s #stepchange campaign – a framework that aims to help universities support the mental wellbeing of their student populations. In their case for action as to why the framework was needed, the organisation noted that recent years have seen an increase in the number of student suicides in the UK and the US, as well as an increase in the number of students reporting mental health issues.

Both countries rank in the top 10 in terms of smartphone users across the world, with close to 70% of each country’s population being smartphone owners. And within that percentage, 18-24 year olds are the highest using age group.

Smartphone dependence and its impact

Earlier this year, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) released a report that looked at the impact that the ubiquity of smartphones is having on young people’s mental health, focusing on their social media activity. Some of the headline figures from the report include the fact that over 90% of the 16-24 age group use the internet for social media, primarily via their phones. It is also noted that the number of people with at least one social media profile increased from 22% to 89% between 2007 and 2016. Also on the increase? The number of people experiencing mental health issues including anxiety and depression.

Can rising anxiety and depression rates really be linked to increased internet and smartphone use? The RSPH report notes that social media use has been linked to both, alongside having a detrimental impact on sleeping patterns, due to the blue light emitted by smartphones. This point came from a study carried out at Harvard, which looked at the impact of artificial lighting on circadian rhythms. While the study focused on the link between exposure to light at night and conditions including diabetes, it also noted an impact on sleep duration and melatonin secretion – both of which are linked to inducing depressive symptoms.

So what’s the answer? Smartphones aren’t going away anytime soon, as seen in the excitement that greets every new edition of the iPhone, a decade on from its launch. With children now being as young as 10 when they receive their first smartphone, parents obviously have a role in moderating use. This inevitably becomes more difficult as children grow up, however, and factors such as peer pressure come into play. And it’s also worth acknowledging that heavy smartphone use isn’t restricted to the younger generation – their parents are just as addicted as they are.

Supporting children and young people

In February Childline released figures which stated that they carried out over 92,000 counselling sessions with children and young people about their mental health and wellbeing in 2015-16 – equivalent to one every 11 minutes. Although technology clearly has its impact – the helpline has also reported a significant increase in the number of sessions it carries out in relation to cyberbullying – the blame can’t be laid completely at its door. Although the world has gone through turbulent times in the past, it’s been well documented recently that today’s young people have it worse than their parents’ generation, particularly in terms of home ownership and job stability. Others have pointed towards a loss of community connections in society, and children spending less time outdoors than previous generations – not only due to devices that keep them indoors but also hypervigilant parents.

In fact, perhaps we hear more about mental health issues experienced by children and young people because smartphones and social media have given them an outlet to express their feelings – something previous generations didn’t have the ability to do. What we should be focusing on is how to respond to these expressions – something we’re still not getting right, despite countless reports and articles making recommendations to governments on how they can do better in this area.

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 articles on mental health.

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.

Invaluable

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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Parental capacity to change: a new approach to child protection assessments

“Current assessments focus more on harm to the child and its causation than on capacity to change”

The assessments undertaken by social workers on children who are on the edge of care are significant. Very few, if any, assessments are straight forward; many cases are complex, with children and their families facing multiple social barriers, poverty, crime, addiction or mental health issues.

paper family on hand

Very little standardisation of practice exists and the pressure and scrutiny on social workers and their professional judgement can sometimes be unbearable. Increasingly there has been a development in the literature around child protection which suggests that social workers’ assessments should reflect the complexities of family life and should acknowledge efforts of parents to positively adapt their lifestyle in order to allow them to care for their child.

The parental capacity to change, as well as the capacity to parent effectively should be considered in these assessments.

Assessing a combination of motivation and ability, professionals it has been suggested, should work with parents to assess their readiness to accept or deny the need for change when completing their assessments. Provided that change can occur in an appropriate time frame for the child in question, professionals can work with the parents to achieve the best outcome for the child remaining with parents where possible, and returning to parents when possible, if additional action to change is necessary.

bambole di stoffa

C-Change Approach.
There has been a push of late to encourage social services to look at the needs of the parent as much as the needs of the child, and to offer support to families throughout the period the child is with them, particularly when the child has been returned to them after a period in social care.

This approach is about developing relationships between social workers and families and creating realistic, clear and accessible targets for parents, to show their change process, and progress,  and to build an understanding of what is expected of them, with the social worker acting as an assessor but also as a motivator and a facilitator to change. Plans should be long term to create stability and a solid goal, but should also be short term enough to show regular results to keep morale high and to regularly show positive progression.

This new long term approach seeks to change behaviour in parents, but evidencing behaviour change can be difficult. Previously, research suggested that parents changed in part, so as to re-gain custody of their children, but that after time they often relapse which led to the child being taken back into care. This inconsistent approach is something which government and the third sector are trying to address through relationship building and long term consistent and implemented strategies, although it is becoming increasingly difficult given the increased demands on budgets and calls for greater efficiency within the sector.

As a result, guidance on the C-Change model emphasises that there must also be tangible consequences for those who fail to comply or who relapse – it is about altering a mindset and a behaviour – and rewards should be agreed for milestones and achievements in the same way as consequences should be in place for non-compliance.

Image by Jerry Wong, via Creative Commons License

Image by xcode via Creative Commons

Shaking the negativity
The literature which considers parental capacity to change as a way to approach social work assessment highlights a common trend – the apparent failure of social services to provide sufficient support to parents and children once the child has been returned. This in turn, the research suggests, leads to more children being taken back into care.

This is often viewed negatively by the media, who are on the one hand critical of social services for being too quick to intervene and break up family units by removing children from their parents’ care, but on the other are highly critical of their practices and their reluctance or delay in removing children from abusive or distressing situations. This negativity translates into how they are viewed by the public.

Perhaps adopting this model of partnership and change promotion can be a way forward for children and their parents and a way for social workers to reform their practices to create a more standardised transparent way of working where they can share ideas and practice, work in partnership, and be recognised for the good they do and the safeguarding role they play for vulnerable people, rather than the criticism of their inconsistent working or un-compassionate approach, as some make out.


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Fathers and social services – is there a failure to engage?

paper family on handBy Heather Cameron

With failure to effectively engage with fathers repeatedly highlighted in serious case reviews over the years, it is worrying to hear that such failure is still evident within the social work profession.

Failure to engage

Just last week, a High Court judge heavily criticised children’s social workers for their “unprofessional” and “reprehensible” case building against a father whose child was up for adoption. The case involved making a decision on whether to return a two-year-old girl to her father and three siblings or allow her to be adopted by the couple she had lived with for the previous 16 months.

The judgement stated that the social workers’ evidence expressed opinions that they were not qualified to make, describing it as ‘psychobabble’. The judge also noted that this evidence was ‘entirely at odds’ with the evidence of qualified professionals and that the local authority gave insufficient weight to the observations of professionals working with the family.

The social workers were also criticised for continually referencing a “clearly out of date” parenting assessment completed in 2012, stating that this “still apparently colours their view of the father”.

It would seem that there could be deep-seated barriers within the social work profession preventing effective engagement with fathers.

Barriers

In fact, there has been much research around the barriers to fathers’ engagement.

It has been widely suggested that an inability among social workers to believe that a father has changed following past negative behaviour, and traditional assumptions and stereotypes about gender roles, have long played a role in preventing engagement.

An article published in 2009 which explored the representation of fathers in the social work literature argued that a pervasive and influential negative attitude towards fathers is widespread in the social work field.

More recently, a feasibility study highlighted that an analysis of serious case reviews conducted from April 2005 to March 2007 across England found a tendency for professionals to adopt ‘rigid’ or ‘fixed’ thinking, with fathers labelled as either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, leading to attributions as to their reliability and trustworthiness. The influence of mothers (which can be good or bad), traditional approaches by the profession in relation to gender and parenting, and fathers being reluctant clients were also cited as barriers.

Such barriers have also been demonstrated by men’s experiences. A study which examined the experiences of fathers involved with statutory social work in Scotland highlighted that respondents reported feeling marginalised from child protection processes and facing barriers to contact with their children. Some men had experienced false accusations of sexual abuse, resulting in long-term involvement with child protection professionals; and some of the respondents felt that they were regarded with suspicion by professionals, with statutory conditions still being applied even after criminal charges had been dropped.

With such long-standing perceptions and approaches within the profession, it would be ill-advised to think that these can be fixed overnight. Nevertheless, there are signs that attitudes are changing.

Changing attitudes

A recent blog by Senior Evaluation Officer at the NSPCC, Nicola McConnell, acknowledges these tendencies within the profession but is confident attitudes are beginning to change. She highlights that only recently had she noticed that on most occasions she had not been interviewing ‘parents’ but almost exclusively mothers:

although services aim to work with parents, for a range of reasons including social organisation and gender expectations, services for children really tend to work with mothers.”

McConnell argues that this can lead to ‘flawed practice’ and discusses how professionals can improve their work with fathers through early engagement and taking a non-judgemental approach.

Facilitators of engagement have been consistently emphasised across the research:

  • Early identification and involvement of fathers;
  • Taking a proactive approach to engagement;
  • Making services relevant to fathers.

And the benefits of effective engagement have also been widely acknowledged. Numerous studies have emphasised the importance of engaging fathers for both children’s outcomes and risk management.

It has recently been highlighted that children with positively involved fathers tend to:

  • Make better friendships with better-adjusted children;
  • Have fewer behaviour problems;
  • Be less involved in criminality and substance abuse;
  • Do better at school;
  • Have greater capacity for empathy;
  • Have higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction.

Good practice

A project highlighted in a recent article in Children and Young People Now which aimed to increase social workers’ engagement with fathers and father figures has had positive results. Following the intervention at one local authority:

  • the percentage of fathers involved in their child’s core assessment rose from 47% to 82%;
  • the percentage of fathers invited to the initial case conference rose from 72% to 90%;
  • and the percentage of fathers whose involvement with the child was discussed at the initial case conference rose from 78% to 100%.

Social workers reported improvements in their practice, including motivating fathers to change problematic behaviour, engaging abusive men in discussion about their behaviour and assessing fathers’ positive qualities. It was also reported that some children had been placed with their fathers instead of being taken into care as a result of their new approach.

So progress is being made, illustrating that it is possible for engagement barriers to be overcome.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to further research and good practice on social care services – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Caring Dads: Safer Children – interim evaluation report (2014, NSPCC)

Engaging fathers in child welfare services: a narrative review of recent research evidence, IN Child and Family Social Work, Vol 17 No 2 May 2012, pp160-169

Fathers’ involvement in children’s services: exploring local and national issues in Moorlandstown, IN British Journal of Social Work, Vol 42 No 3 Apr 2012, pp500-518

Don’t ignore the father, IN Community Care, No 1818 13 May 2010, pp16-17

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Hitting the glass floor: the impact of social background on earnings

 

By James Carson

How much does family background matter when it comes to your job prospects later in life? That’s the focus of a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission which examined the relationship between social background, childhood academic ability and adult success in the labour market.

The study looked at the lives of 17,000 people born in Britain in the same week in 1970 to examine the impact of social background on earnings. It was specifically looking for evidence that initially low attaining children from affluent backgrounds were more likely to succeed in the labour market than their more gifted peers from less advantaged families.

Demography and destiny

The study found that :

  • low attaining children from better-off families have a greater chance of being highly successful in the labour market;
  • high attaining children from less advantaged family backgrounds are less likely to be in a high earning job as an adult.

The report  suggests that more advantaged, better-educated parents ‘hoard the best opportunities’ for their less academically inclined children to help them overtake more gifted but poorer peers.

Examples of how they do this may include:

  • investing time and resources in education to help children showing early signs of low attainment to recover and achieve good qualifications;
  • providing better careers advice and guidance;
  • placing a high value on ‘soft skills’, such as self-confidence, decisiveness, leadership and resilience, which employers ultimately value;
  • prioritising school choice;
  • helping their children into internships and employment through informal social networks.

Breaking the glass floor

Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, believes the findings highlight a social scandal:

“It has long been recognised that there is a glass ceiling in British society that prevents children with potential progressing to the top. This research reveals there is a glass floor that inhibits social mobility as much as the glass ceiling.”

Among the suggestions the report makes to remove barriers that block downward mobility, are:

  • reducing inequalities in parental education through adult skills programmes;
  • ensuring children from less advantaged backgrounds have access to the support and opportunities available to their peers, including good careers information and guidance;
  • improving school quality in disadvantaged areas, improving access to high-quality schools and universities and removing financial barriers to higher education;
  • taking action to reduce ‘opportunity hoarding’: including tackling unpaid internships, and encouraging employers to remove barriers in the recruitment process that inadvertently prevent those with high potential from disadvantaged backgrounds being successful.

Levelling the playing field for children from less advantaged families won’t happen overnight. But the report underlines the importance of making an immediate start to ensure adults of the future achieve success because of merit and effort rather than parental wealth and status:

“A society in which the success or failure of children with equal ability rests on the social and economic status of their parents is not a fair one.”


Further reading

We’ve blogged recently on related issues – widening participation to higher education and how inequal access to work experience opportunities is limiting social mobility.

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Sharing the caring – tackling the cultural and financial barriers to Shared Parental Leave

Baby hand in father's palmBy Donna Gardiner

New Shared Parental Leave legislation came into force in England, Scotland and Wales on the 1st December 2014.

The legislation provides much greater flexibility in regards to how parents care for their child over the first year of his or her life. Specifically, a new mother can opt to curtail her maternity leave (subject to a minimum of two weeks), and have the child’s father or her partner take any of the remaining weeks as Shared Parental Leave.

Anticipated uptake and impact

The aim of the legislation is to encourage more men to share childcare, drive greater gender equality in the workplace, and eliminate discrimination around maternity leave. The government estimates that around 285,000 couples will be eligible to share leave from April 2015, and that take up will be around 8%.  However, it is not clear whether significant numbers of fathers will take up Shared Parental Leave in practice.

On one hand, there does appear to be evidence that fathers will welcome the new proposals. Research conducted by Working Families found that many fathers wanted to increase the amount of time they spent at home with their children. Indeed, many fathers, particularly those in the 26-35 age group, felt resentful towards their employers because of their poor work-life balance.

These findings are echoed by the IPPR, which found that one in five fathers wanted to change their working patterns, and another one in five wanted to spend more time with their baby, but couldn’t because of financial or workplace reasons. Another report found that over half (57%) of fathers working full time wanted to reduce their hours to spend more time with their children.

Cultural and financial barriers

However, despite the apparent desire among fathers to spend more time with their children, considerable barriers remain. Continue reading