The trouble with Troubled Families

I was seduced, I admit it, by the rhetoric of the Troubled Families Programme. It seemed so obvious that wrap-around intensive support ought to work in a way that individual and unlinked services would not. This, despite the fact that we have had more than a few programmes - locally and nationally - over the years that purported to be the magic bullet to address society's ills. And it seemed obvious that families with multiple problems and challenges needed coordinated and high-energy support.

Of course, families only become ‘troubled', in the jargon, when it has all gone horribly wrong - substance misuse, worklessness, poor or non-existent parenting skills, poverty and debt, and criminality for example. And putting Humpty Dumpty back in his shell has always been a nigh-on impossible task - which is not a counsel of desperation or lack of hope, because we must not, must not, give up on families and their children in any circumstances - even if we only have limited success, that will reduce negative intergenerational effects.

Early intervention, and even better that that, prevention before lives are going downhill seem likely to have more chance of long-term success. That's why I was and remain such an enthusiastic supporter of Sure Start Children's Centres - even though, again, the evidence is not compelling. But I have seen mothers, and fathers , and their young children, for whom a children's centre was a safe and unthreatening place for activity, for learning about being a good parent. And while nothing is perfect, and there is no magic bullet, lives were, and are, being improved.

I've been thinking about the Troubled Families Programme and wondered how it could be that £400 million has been spent on something so ineffective. Perhaps the answer is to be found in the market-driven philosophy of payment by results - a philosophy which always ends up with distortions - people act to get the measurable results, not a fundamental change. The same is true of high-stakes accountability in education. Who cares if you get English GCSE Grade C if you can't communicate in practice?

This sort of pressure is surely what leads to the conclusion in the recent National Institute for Economic and Social Research report that: "Whilst local authority reports suggested that more than nine in 10 of the Troubled Families group supplied in the sample met at least two of the national eligibility criteria, only 39 per cent of these same families could be positively identified as meeting the criteria when using the national administrative data."

But, I'm afraid that the most depressing part of the whole story is that governments cannot be seen to fail. I include in that local councils, who need the money, civil servants whose bright idea it was, and ministers, who need successes to keep on climbing the greasy pole.

This led Jonathan Portes, one of the report's authors, to call the programme a "perfect case study" of how the manipulation and misrepresentation of statistics by civil servants and politicians meant bad policy-making and money-wasting. It really is depressing.

If you have not yet read it, do read the report, or at least skim it, as it is full of lessons for us all - policy makers, observes and practitioners.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children's services and is now a freelance consultant