Harry Benson is Communications Director of the Marriage Foundation and author of Let’s Stick Together – the relationship book for new parents.
Having spent years teaching thousands of parents how to make their marriages and relationships work well, I am pleased that the Prime Minister wants to improve support for new parents.
Much of what is proposed seems sensible. Vouchers for parenting classes will encourage more parents to come along. Emails with general advice for new parents are a good idea. Early relationship education is also good.
The new initiative is supposed to be a preventive strategy that will ultimately cut costs. None of this need be the stuff of nanny state. But, as it stands, it threatens to become another waste of money. It won’t achieve high levels of access because it smacks of treatment rather than prevention. And it won’t achieve high levels of impact because it lacks foundation.
The first big issue is access. Once you get people through the door, parents find both parenting and relationships programmes helpful and not at all scary. But they are still perceived as being for those with problems – i.e: treatment. It doesn’t help that the new relationship support is to be offered by the big counselling organisations that specialise in treatment rather than the many smaller relationship education organisations that specialise in prevention.
Some years ago, my small charity found a way of accessing large numbers of parents through the NHS post-natal system. We have been teaching relationship skills to 25% of new mothers in the Bristol area for the last five years with a relationship education programme called Let’s Stick Together. The programme is currently being rolled out by the national charity Care for the Family with funding and evaluation through the Department for Education.
The Prime Minister’s new initiative could prove very successful if it uses the same trick as us. But it can’t. This is because the NHS post-natal system is now in a state of collapse.
Health visitors, who really understand prevention, have been sucked away into child protection work and simply don’t have time or resources to run post-natal groups. In their place is an array of shiny new Surestart Childrens Centres running Early Years groups. We have switched tack accordingly.
But whereas NHS post-natal groups were a natural extension of the incredibly popular NHS ante-natal groups, mums now have to be persuaded to come across to a (usually) different and unfamiliar Surestart centre with different people. Not surprisingly, attendance is far lower. Instead of a rolling programme of short NHS post-natal courses that equipped large numbers of new parents, Surestart centres now tend to run long-term support groups for much smaller numbers of new parents. Our own numbers are falling accordingly.
This is mad. The excellent Surestart staff are often as frustrated as I am that they have to put so much effort into attracting new parents in the first place. I know there are pressures on the NHS ante-natal system as well. But moving all NHS ante-natal services into Surestart would make it so much more likely that new parents would come back – to the same place with the same group of parents – for more preventive input after their baby is born. Moreover, Surestart could then instigate and host a proper rolling programme of short post-natal courses that equip large numbers of parents – which is what it should be doing.
The other big issue is foundation. Much is made of the importance of parenting programmes. At individual level, these are definitely worthwhile. The principles of good enough parenting are remarkably simple – love and boundaries – even if the practice is rather harder. Parents find courses helpful and tend to enjoy them more than they expected. They can be taught by ordinary non-expert parents with a minimum of training. Parent-child outcomes generally show gains up to eighteen months later.
But this is window dressing. The bulk of the £44 billion annual bill for picking up the pieces of family breakdown – more than the defence budget – comes not from dysfunctional parent-child relationships but from the split up of parents. The number of lone parent families has doubled in the last thirty years. And the main driver of this is the trend away from marriage.
The government can and should provide input to help all new parents on their way. But the reality is that parenting is so much easier with two pairs of hands.
Even if marriage is no silver bullet, most marriages last for life. In contrast, the concept of “long term stable relationships” outside of marriage is wishful thinking. Just 3% of intact parents with 15 year old children are not married. If the Prime Minister needs one knock-out statistic to back his own case for supporting marriage, this is it.
Support for new parents must have genuine prevention at its heart. The best way to achieve that is to rebuild our post-natal system and to back marriage.