A very tall order with a short deadline

Anne Longfield
Monday, February 20, 2012

Across the country, newly formed local teams are embarking on a colossal exercise. In every area, local authorities have until next month to quantify how many troubled families live in each area and set out how they are going to help them turn their lives around.

The move is part of one of the government’s boldest areas of domestic policy: the much publicised target of "turning around" the lives of 120,000 troubled families – in just three years.

A tall order with a short deadline. But let’s be optimists. Imagine if it did fulfil its potential. Five years from now, the country could be spending less money on managing family crisis, less on combating antisocial behaviour, less on the youth justice system. Youth crime could fall dramatically.

There could be fewer children in care. More families could be in work with the added financial boost to the economy. Socially and economically, these ends would be good for us all, not just the 120,000. So it is worth doing all we can to make this work.

The details of the plan are still being discussed – including the crucial issues of what success looks like, and how the different agencies involved will work together.

We know there is European funding to help families get back into work and we also know that government is itself investing £448m in the programme with an expectation that this forms 40 per cent of an overall pot, with the rest to be filled by local authorities. Remaining optimistic, this is a sizeable investment. It could provide powerful leverage to make change happen in communities.

But local implementation is also where the risks are highest. Councils are dealing with major public service cuts, with more yet to come. At the same time, major reforms to health and education are all poised to take effect, with results that are difficult to predict. In such turbulent times, how could such a fundamental programme possibly have a chance of success?

It may just be that here is the answer. Yes, local authorities are dealing with huge change. Many are knee-deep in reviewing and reconfiguring their services as a result. But if the government can prove it is serious about its goal of turning around families, if it can configure support and financing in an intelligent way, then maybe the programme will emerge as the spur that realises the wider ambitions of local agencies. Maybe this is the ultimate catalyst for joined-up, coherent services to become a reality.

It’s an enticing thought, but one that isn’t without challenges. Some of those agencies involved in the government’s Work Programme, for example, admit to concern about the ability to join up the different parts of the scheme on the ground. Many local authorities worry they will struggle to find their share of the funding without imposing cuts on other frontline priorities.  

Local agencies point out they are working with these troubled families already, but upon further investigation the numbers are still relatively low. Five years of family intervention projects only got to 9,000 families and the Working Families Everywhere campaign led by Emma Harrison has reached two per cent of its 10,000 target. The 120,000 target, as the "go-getters" of behaviour change programmes like to say, is of an "industrial scale".

Money and scale aside, it is the change in culture and approach from all those agencies that are planning and working with families in crisis that will make this work or not. That’s why the role of local "troubleshooters" to help these families is so crucial.

To make it work, local agencies will have to address the trickiest delivery challenges.  Budgets will need to be pooled and professional leads assigned. A range of professionals including police, social workers, health visitors and early years staff will need to work together with confidence and a clear focus on the whole family. They will need to do so in an empathetic and empowering way.

Behind all this is a move to spend substantially more on prevention rather than having to manage crisis. The Prime Minister promised to make the UK the most "family friendly" country in Europe. Government must now link together its own policies – from welfare reform to its approach to employment and health – otherwise the next three years of government will be tested by troubled families.

Anne Longfield is chief executive of 4Children

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