David Cameron has strong views about the family; often ones that ought to remain inside his head. He quite is keen on marriage and good parenting, but how to make this into a government policy? He offers some thoughts in his speech today. His words:
'In the end, getting parenting and the early years right isn’t just about the hardest-to-reach families; it’s about everyone. We all have to work at it. And if you don’t have a strong support network – if you don’t know other mums or dads – having your first child can be enormously isolating… Of course [kids] don’t come with a manual, but is it right that all of us get so little guidance? We’ve made progress. We’ve dramatically expanded the number of health visitors, and that is crucial. But that just deals with one part of parenting – the first few weeks and months. What about later on, when it comes to play, communication, behaviour and discipline? We all need more help with this – the most important job we’ll ever have. So I believe we now need to think about how to make it normal – even aspirational – to attend parenting classes.'
Lucky old us: Big Brother’s parenting classes. The problem is: can such lessons be effectively delivered by the state? We don’t need to wonder. As you might expect, the idea of State Parenting has been pioneered in Scotland where the NHS embarked on what they called the ‘Triple P’ programme for errant Glaswegian parents. The below bumf, from 2009, promised to...
'Give parents their parenting wings to fly, rather than flap on instruction. It’s about engagement, encouragement and empowerment of families to address common social, emotional and behavioural problems.'
Just what David Cameron seems to offer. The problem is that, as a Glasgow University evaluation established, Triple P didn’t work, and the sorry tale is relayed by the Scottish press today. As the Times’ Scottish edition says:
Last November, researchers at the University of Glasgow found that it had made minimal impact on families from deprived backgrounds and may even have increased social inequality because of the high drop-out rate.
Fewer than half of families completed the programme and those with severe problems were the most likely to drop out.
Anyway, I daresay there will be a lot of good ideas in Cameron’s speech today. But government-sponsored parenting isn’t one of them.
PS: Matt Buttery, CEO of Triple P has been in touch. Here's his response to the piece:
In no way attempting to stifle debate about this important issue, it’s also important to set the record straight on issues regarding this article. Most importantly, the claims made by the University of Glasgow evaluation into Triple P’s delivery cannot be accepted on face value because it suffered methodological flaws, causing it to be rejected by the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. The evaluation team also chose not to include evidence from its own report in its conclusions which showed that Triple P did have a positive impact. It is also not correct to say that fewer than half of families completed the programme. The evaluation was criticised by the NHS for claiming this when the truth is less than half of families simply failed to complete the university evaluation team’s questionnaires.
PPS: Professor Philip Wilson, whose team carried out the University of Glasgow evaluation of Triple P, has a response to Matt Buttery's comments:
It is true that the NHS GGC rejected my team’s evaluation and said it was ‘considering alternative options for an independent evaluation of our Parenting Support Framework.’ The protocol for our independent evaluation was agreed with NHS GGC in 2010. We followed this protocol faithfully and reported the findings impartially, resisting pressure from Prof Sanders (Triple P’s founder and chief financial beneficiary) to change our conclusions. There is no other plausible explanation for the rejection of our report save that those producing the NHS GGC press statement did not like the findings.
Triple P had already been tried out over ten years previously in Glasgow in the £3 million Starting Well demonstration project. The project was generally considered to be a failure, its only sustained measure of success being increased proportions of registration of infants with dentists. (The final report is available here).
Our main conclusion, namely that Triple P had been ineffective in Glasgow, is completely in harmony with the negative findings reported in all peer-reviewed independently conducted research into Triple P. The only studies that have shown Triple P to produce benefit for children have been authored by people who make money out of Triple P sales.
As a GP who saw a decline in other child health funding during the implementation of Triple P in Glasgow, I am saddened to reflect on the good work that GPs and our health visitor colleagues could have done with the millions spent on this programme.