Sarah Teather – 2011 Speech to the Family and Parenting Institute

Below is the text of the speech made by Sarah Teather to the Family and Parenting Institute on 17th October 2011.

Thank you very much – it’s a great pleasure to be here today, especially for the start of Parents’ week. I’m really grateful to the FPI for hosting this meeting today.

This is a really important agenda for the Government, and I hope that you recognise that by the support that’s been given at the highest levels of Government for this week. This is an issue which the Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister and I take very seriously.

The key point that I want to leave you with, as the Government’s Minister for Children and Families, is that this Government isn’t going to shy away from supporting family life.

I do recognise that this is a controversial area – and it’s controversial both on the left and on the right. There are some people who will say it’s all about supporting marriage. Then you’ve got people who say it’s nothing to do with supporting marriage.

Marriage is incredibly important in creating a supportive and happy environment, but it is not the only thing that we should consider when we’re thinking about supporting families, because we know that it is the quality of the family and parent-child relationships that really matter.

I also think, in reflecting about supporting families and parents at this stage, that there is a tendency too often for families to become the public whipping boy for policy. After the riots, it’s right that we should think and ask questions about how we raise our children. But too often the debate becomes polarised into good parents and bad parents.

That’s not helpful for anybody. All parents make mistakes. All parents find it a tough job. Most parents are desperate for more advice, more information and more support.

Bringing up children is something that we all have a stake in, and we knock families at our peril. All of us have a stake in this. That’s demonstrated by the work that the FPI have done – in getting businesses involved as much as in the support that is offered to individual families.

But I think that there is a very specific role for Government in trying to create the kind of society in which children grow up and develop well and in which family life can flourish.

The evidence is clear. As Graham Allen and Frank Field have found in their reports, children’s life chances are heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life. For children’s health, mothers’ health is critical in the early days and weeks.

Two other factors are really important to children’s life chances: high-quality early years education and what we call the home learning environment. “The home learning environment has a greater influence on a child’s intellectual and social development than parental occupation, education or income.”

That’s a very stark finding – it means that the way in which parents interact with their children in the very early stages of life can overcome many of the other factors associated with disadvantage.

We know that this is very important. Supporting parents to do a good job is critical if the Government is serious about accessing the potential that all children have.

That’s the reason that we have extended the free early years entitlement from 12.5 hours to 15 hours for all 3 and 4 year olds. It’s also the reason that we’re extending it to all disadvantaged two-year olds. There’s also significant, on-going work to improve the quality of the early years offer.

But we need to do more if we want to support parents.

Most new parents would expect to attend an antenatal class. They may decide to pay for that, or they may be able to have it for free.

But parenting support once your child arrives has come to be seen as remedial or punitive. Something that is forced on you if something goes badly wrong or if your child is uncontrollable.

I don’t think that’s a healthy way forward. I want to see more access and more choice for parents to parenting advice and support. That’s why I announced last month that the Government will shortly begin trialling an offer of parenting classes for mothers and fathers of children child aged 0 – 5 in three or four areas.

The trial will give parents access to parenting classes during those first five years of their child’s life, so that they can have help with parenting until their child starts school. I hope that will begin to break that cycle that says that parenting classes are only something that happens when things go wrong, and that people will then feel confident, at a later stage, to access information and support.

Today I am delighted to announce that those trials will run in three areas: Middlesbrough, High Peak and the London Borough of Camden. Officials from my Department have already been in touch with partners in those areas. They’ve been chosen specifically to make sure that we’re able to cover a rural area, an urban area, and areas with a very mixed population that have wealth and disadvantage living side by side. If this offer is going to work then it needs to be available to all parents.

The classes won’t be compulsory. This isn’t the nanny state. But it is a response to the evidence that says that the home environment is the biggest single determinant of your child’s future success. I don’t think we can afford to ignore that evidence. It would be to squander the nation’s most precious resource – our children’s potential.

But parenting classes are just one element in the spectrum of family support that this Government is providing.

Sure Start Children’s Centres continue to play a vital part in their local community, alongside schools and NHS services.

We believe that these centres should have a clear core purpose, focused on improving outcomes for young children and their families, with a particular focus on the most disadvantaged families – reducing inequalities in child development and school readiness; parenting aspirations, self esteem and parenting skills; and child and family health and life chances.

We want areas who are trialling parenting classes to think about the role their local network of children’s centres can play – in terms of: children’s centres supporting families into parenting classes, through parenting classes, and after a parenting class has finished.

And we know how important the support of health visitors can be, especially during those early years. This is why the Government is acting to strengthen the Healthy Child Programme through its commitment to an extra 4,200 health visitors by 2015.

We’re also investing in relationship support – £30 million over the next four years – because we know that’s critical in supporting parents.

Last week, we announced an increase in childcare support for families on low incomes.

In addition, the Government has proposed to extend parental leave to both parents, to give families more flexibility and to encourage both parents to play their part. I believe passionately that this is a vital part of our commitment to families.

BIS have recently concluded their consultation called the ‘Modern Work Place’ consultation, which addressed this issue. I believe that this is absolutely critical to supporting family life, and I’m very excited about this consultation.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be announcing more support to help parents navigate through the wealth of information and advice available to mothers, fathers and carers, particularly on the internet.

If you try Googling “parenting” you’ll receive over 200 million suggestions – not all of which will be relevant. We need to start helping parents navigate the enormous amount of parenting information and support available.

That is why my Department and the Department of Health are jointly exploring ways of making digital information for parents of children between pregnancy and the age of five more easily accessible. The aim is that parents find specific information and advice when they need it and are signposted to high quality health and parenting content. I expect to be able to say more about this new service very shortly.

Parenting isn’t just about supporting families in the early years. We know that things don’t always get easier as children get older.

That’s why the commitment that the Prime Minister made very recently to a family ‘test’ is so critical.

We want to do everything we can to ensure that policies help families flourish by supporting the financial well-being and work-life balance of families and promoting quality public services for them to use.

I’m concerned that this test shouldn’t just pick up the broad sweep of issues or only cater for middle class families. If this test is going to work, it has to cater for families of all backgrounds. Families who may be more vulnerable, for example, because they have a child who has a disability, or because they fit into one of the categories which are less popular with the media. How are we supporting families who are involved in the criminal justice system, or who may be affected by benefit reform? These are the critical tests of how a family ‘test’ should work.

But a family “test” operated wholly in Whitehall is unlikely to be the most effective way of achieving our aims. We need to know what real families think, and not just what civil servants think real families think.

So that’s why I’ve been so grateful for the help of the FPI in developing our thinking so far.

And we want to continue working with partners like you in developing the family “test.”

If you want to make an input to the development of the family “test”, if there are obvious policy areas that you know need highlighting, or things that you think should be addressed by this family ‘test’ I’d encourage you to get in contact with the Families’ Strategic Partner, who offer advice to the Government on families’ issues, via our hosts today the Family and Parenting Institute.

I just want to finish by saying that I’m incredibly grateful for the support, advice and challenge that everyone in the sector and beyond provides Government on its policy decisions. We are better for it!

I know that families are feeling under pressure at the moment with the current fiscal situation. I know it’s tight and I know it’s difficult. But this Government is determined to do as much as it can to support families. I’m grateful for your help in making that happen.