Issues - protecting children from State - State takeover
'An overall lack of vision is holding us back'
Wednesday July 28, 2004
Services and support for teenagers and their families are
inconsistent at best. But there is a way forward. We need
a vision of services and support as bold as the Sure Start
programme, the government's flagship initiative in this area:
we might call it Sure Progress.
There is an opportunity for such a bold move because the needs
of teenagers are beginning to receive more attention from
the government. The new five-year strategy from the Department
for Education and Skills is promising a green paper in the
autumn, setting out its "offer" to young people.
The spending review committed some new money for youth inclusion
programmes while, last week, the prime minister and the home
secretary emphasised, in the five-year strategic plan on crime,
a greater emphasis on parenting support and targeting "troubled
teenagers" at risk of offending.
It is now understood that investment in early years' support
and services for families with young children provides positive
outcomes for children later on in life. Few ministerial speeches
now pass without reference to the Sure Start programme. The
arguments on childcare and support for families with young
children are being won, and the rewards are seen in investment
in childcare places, in children's centres, and in new rights
to include flexible working arrangements for parents with
children aged under six.
However, providing support in the early years is not enough.
There is danger in a government strategy that emphasises heavy
investment in the social, emotional and cognitive development
of children up until the age of five but which then takes
a "crossed fingers" approach to ensuring that the
progress made in these years will be sustained. The evidence
suggests that it won't.
If we leave things to chance, it is social class, defined
primarily by income, that plays a bigger role in determining
where children end up 10 or 20 years later. Leon Feinstein's
work at the Institute of Education demonstrates that positive
interventions to help families with young children up until
the age of five, if not sustained, are no guarantee that they
will continue to do well.
That teenagers and their parents need to achieve more is obvious.
But the difficult question is how they succeed in doing this.
More activities for young people is mentioned when teenagers
and parents are asked what changes they'd like to see in their
community. But while spaces and places to go are crucial,
they are only part of the solution. It is vital those working
with teenagers see them in the context of their families.
We need to be as interested in the parents as we are in their
children, because positive and negative outcomes for teenagers
are as dependent on family relationships and the home environment
as they are for younger children.
Recent research conducted by the Institute of Public Policy
Research highlights how far we are from implementing this
family-based, developmental approach when working with teenagers.
It shows that parents of teenagers overwhelmingly agree that
the teenage years are hardest for them to deal with. Yet at
the time when they feel most challenged, they feel least supported.
Over half of them wish it was easier to talk to other parents
of teenagers about the challenges that they face. Boosting
support networks and the advice on offer to parents with teenagers
must be a priority, particularly as the money available in
the Parenting Fund budget begins to bear fruit.
The family-based model of support offered by the Sure Start
programme, which integrates early education, childcare, health
and family support, could hold the key to working more effectively
with teenagers and their parents. Multiple gatekeepers, multiple
providers, fragmented services, complicated funding and, most
importantly, a lack of overall vision is holding us back.
Connexions, the government's programme for 13- to 19-year-olds
in England, is an attempt to broker the support and services
on offer to teenagers, but delivery on the ground is hit and
miss, and it does little to engage with the wider family context
in which teenagers live. Specialist services, such as drug
action teams, youth offending teams, teenage pregnancy services,
and child and adolescent mental health services, all work
to important agendas but without recognising that one teenager
might pass between each of these services at different times.
A Sure Progress programme - a Sure Start for teenagers - could
provide a blueprint for bringing together activities, support
and advice for teenagers and parents. It would deliver the
best start in adult life for teenagers. It would link family
support, out-of-school activities for teenagers, existing
specialist health and social care services, Connexions and
developing initiatives such as extended schools. Such a programme
would require bigger investment, but it would also make better
use of existing funding.
• Laura Edwards is a senior research fellow at IPPR.
She is author of The Lever Fabergé Family Report 2004:
Parenting Under the Microscope; and Passing Time: A Report
About Young People and Communities. Both are available at