I was fortunate to be able to attend Parenting UK’s Annual Conference on Thursday 15th November. The theme of this year’s conference was “Parenting and the Recession”. The day was spent exploring how economic disadvantage affects parenting style and child outcomes. The key note speaker was the Rt Hon Frank Field MP who offered an exclusive insight into his plans to pilot the recommendations from his Nov 2010 report, on poverty and life chances, in his Birkenhead constituency. The Review conducted by Mr Field on behalf of the Government found that children’s life chances were most heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life. His report The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults states that a child’s development at the ages of 3 and 5 is a more reliable indicator of whether that child will be poor in adulthood than the poverty measure set out in the Child Poverty Act. At the Parenting UK Conference Mr Field argued that unless we expand the focus of our strategic conversations about childhood we will limit our attempts to reduce child poverty to a purely budgetary argument. The report, whose recommendations have not yet been adopted by the Government, states that secure bonding with parents, the love and responsiveness of parents, and opportunities for cognitive, language and social and emotional development are key factors in a child’s healthy cognitive growth. Mr Field told the conference that much greater emphasis needed to be placed on the Foundation Years as the essential first part of a tripartite system of support and resources for families. Among other initiatives, Mr Field cited Children’s Centres as an ideal hub for local communities, offering friendly, inclusive and socially and ethnically mixed meeting places for families. By introducing his vision in Birkenhead, Mr Field hopes that other local authorities will witness its impact and follow suit.
Claire Walker, the Director of Policy and Communications at Family Lives, took the floor after Mr Field and talked movingly about her work with parents who were facing financial hardship as a result of the recession and suffering from emotional stress. She cited the loss of employment and reduced income as key factors in the ‘Family Stress Model’ and talked about the many couples who had been forced to become ‘juggernaut parents’ (taking it in turns to parent and work in a rolling day and night shift pattern) which meant that families had very little time together as families. Ms Walker told the delegates that many families were under enormous strain and the resultant emotional disconnectedness and eventual couple breakdown was putting children at risk. Ms Walker argued that the Parenting Sector needed to help families become more resilient to economic pressure by offering visible and accessible support locally and nationally. She also emphasised that this was the time for voluntary and charitable organisations to demonstrate the true value and validity of the support services they offered to families.
Dr Elizabeth Jones (Centre For Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education) a Research Officer on the Millennium Cohort Study was the last speaker of the morning. She gave a fascinating presentation on several of the periodic studies or ‘sweeps’ of the 19,000 children (and their families) in the Millennium Cohort. These particular studies looked at the impact of poverty on cognitive and educational outcomes in children. The studies found that poverty, particularly persistent poverty, during the first five years of life was most strongly related to poor cognitive outcomes (Dickerson and Popli 2102). The studies also showed that inequalities emerged very early in a child’s life and these early differences could have long term implications.
The afternoon of the conference was given over to practical workshop sessions. I attended Honor Rhodes’ (Director of Projects and Strategic Development at the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships) fascinating workshop on ‘the importance of evaluating your service in the current economy’. Ms Rhodes argued that the most compelling reason wanting to measure the outcomes for families we work with must be rooted in our desire to be responsible, reflective and developing practitioners who hold ourselves to account for the resources we receive. She also suggested that measuring outcomes was a valid way of demonstrating whether or not a family was better off as a result of our intervention; of providing a valuable evidence base which enabled our work to be shared and replicated, and not least, of demonstrating value for money. Ms Rhodes said that it was possible to find the right tool to measure a wide variety of behaviours, beliefs and relationships. There were a huge number of tools available on the market and many of them were free. Ms Rhodes said that the most important thing to remember when choosing a tool was for it to be, “appropriate, subtle and rewarding”. The Conference concluded with a question and answer session with a panel of experts on the important parenting topics of the day.