Earlier this month the government published the lengthy, very comprehensive, and long-awaited Independent Family Review report which contains ‘ground-breaking research’ that Dame Rachel de Souza, the England’s Children’s Commissioner, assures us will provide us with a deep understanding what modern families look like.
While I assumed that the data would simply serve to confirm what many of us have known for years – namely, that the number of ‘families’ in the country cannot be quickly calculated using the latest ONS statistics on divorce and marriage – I won’t deny I was curious about what further insight it would provide.
I must say, I was pleasantly surprised.
Not so much by the data itself, which shows that as of 2021, there are 8.2 million families with children in England, 63% of which are married couples with children, 14% of which are cohabiting and 23% of which are headed by a lone parent, but more so by the emphasis that the report places on the importance of family relationships.
As part of her foreword, Dame de Souza says that if children have happy and supportive families, they are more likely to succeed later-on in life and are more likely to have healthy relationships.
She goes on to acknowledge extensive research which has shown that children whose parents have separated are more likely to be disadvantaged across a range of outcomes, including emotional well-being and education, and that the impact of parental separation depends on the level of parental conflict.
The report indicates that no less than twelve percent of children experience parental conflict, and that studies have shown that children who experience parental conflict are at a higher risk of problems with their mental and physical health, and their relationships with others.
The scale of this issue is further put into context in the Independent Family Review, which states that family relationship difficulties are the most cited presenting problem in the NHS’ psychological therapy services for young people, and that ‘arguments about money and domestic responsibilities are among the biggest sources of family conflict as they can add to emotional pressure’ (P58/59).
It’s hardly surprising therefore, that she stresses that the Government ‘needs to prioritise how they can put families at the heart of all of policy decisions’. A call to action which surely cannot go unactioned, especially in the current climate when we face a cost-of-living crisis that will no doubt cause further conflict amongst those already in crisis?
Or can it?
I’m afraid after several decades leading the charge when it comes to championing the importance of stable family relationships and the impact that can have on the wellbeing of children, I’ve read many such reports filled with good intent, but witnessed very little sustained subsequent action.
That said, I’m a glass half full sort of person, and we do at least now have the data, the insight, and the commitment of the current Children’s Commissioner to facilitate change, and to ensure that families have access to the resources they need to maintain healthy relationships. Parents, grandparents, extended family members and children alike.
Indeed, the report detailed that families, particularly parents, take supporting and sustaining a family very seriously, and when asked the vast majority of parents said they are open to support, with only 7% of parents saying they would not look for any help at all in any aspect of family life.
Furthermore, according to the findings of a survey of parents who have been through separation, extended family was the most frequently cited source of support (30%), followed closely by family mediation (28%) (P59).
Given how crucial support services can be to some families, the researchers acknowledge that it is important to understand what support is currently available. The report goes on to say that when it comes to voluntary, and paid for services in particular, there is no central oversight of what is provided.
An issue highlighted, I’m afraid, by the fact that the table of ‘services currently available to families’ completely misses off its own family mediation voucher scheme. While I appreciate its permanency is yet to be determined, that is disappointing given that more than a quarter (28%) of parents have cited it as a ‘go to’ for conflict resolution support.
This is concerning, and while I am led to believe that this particular issue will be addressed in Phase 2 of the research, which will look at how oversight, accountability and availability of services can be made more cohesive and family centred, as well as providing solutions for how families can better navigate what is available to them locally, do we really need to wait that long to get a list together?
Yes, a deep dive is needed, and Phase 2 will also look to explore the quality and effectiveness of what works to support families, but what about families in crisis right now?
Surely the Government needs to do more to champion what help is out there – including the mediation voucher scheme – as a matter of urgency, and isn’t it time for the family hubs to seriously engage with family mediation providers as part of their whole family approach to services? Indeed, this would be one new inclusion ticked off the list.