Page last updated at 07:48 GMT, Wednesday, 14 October 2009 08:48 UK

Pledge Watch: Supernannies

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Politicians love announcing initiatives. In this series we pluck a pledge from the archives. And see what happened next...

It is perhaps the biggest dilemma facing governments.

Edwardian nanny
Does the term "nanny" suggest a certain bossiness?

How much can they, or should they, do to change society?

Tabloid newspapers frequently accuse New Labour of wanting to create a "nanny state".

But they show at least as much concern over "feral" youths parading around "broken Britain", disrupting people's lives with their anti-social behaviour and crime.

Back in 2006, with this widely held fear in mind, Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed sending in teams of "parenting experts" to deal with some of England's most dysfunctional and disruptive families.

They would offer advice on parent-child relationships, in an effort to get tough on the causes of youth crime.

Addressing a Downing Street seminar, Mr Blair said: "This is not about telling people how to raise their children or interfering with people. It is about helping people do something very difficult, and sometimes a helping, not a heavy, hand is needed."

'Gimmicks'

Funding of £4m was promised, to provide classes and one-to-one advice across 77 local authorities.

Struggling parents could ask for help. Those with the worst-behaved children would be forced to accept it.

Immediately this soon-to-be-created workforce was dubbed "Supernannies" by the press.

This referred to a popular TV series in which a no-nonsense childcare expert was called in to deal with some of Britain's unruliest toddlers.

But, many wondered, was there any effective equivalent of the "naughty step" for criminally active, sometimes violent teenagers?

What we discover when we talk to parents is that some of them never played with their own parents or had books read to them. We're teaching them skills that they never had passed down to them.
Honor Rhodes
Family and Parenting Institute

Opposition parties, who have different policies to support families and children, were contemptuous of Mr Blair's rhetoric.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Vince Cable said: "Primary responsibility for tackling antisocial behaviour should be with the police and not local authorities."

For the Conservatives, shadow home secretary David Davis went further: "The fact the government are resorting to having to bribe local authorities to sign up to their gimmicks betrays just how unsuccessful they have been.

"However, the government should ditch the gimmick-led approach and start respecting the public's intelligence."

So, three years on, has the pledge been fulfilled?

The short answer is "yes". Well, almost.

'Important support'

There are 75 "parenting practitioners" in place, almost the minimum of 77 - one per local authority - promised. These are said to have helped 2,500 parents.

Mr Blair is no longer in 10 Downing Street, but Gordon Brown's regime seems equally keen.

The advice scheme has been continued until 2011, taking its funding to a total of £15.4m.

And, rather than having just one expert per local authority, the government decided in 2007 that each council should have at least two parenting practitioners, at a total cost of £34m.

A Department for Children Schools and Families spokesman said: "Parenting practitioners provide important support for the parents of children and young people who are committing anti-social behaviour or who may be at risk of doing so.

"Through one-to-one support and group programmes, they help to improve parenting skills and enable parents to manage their own children's behaviour by reducing problems such as conduct disorder."

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair
The Brown government has extended the commitment made by Mr Blair

So, what happens when the experts go in?

Honor Rhodes, director of development at the Family and Parenting Institute, says that, at first, they might focus on the easier-to-understand aspects of parents' relationship with their children.

Then, during a 12-week course, the experts move on to addressing more fundamental issues.

Ms Rhodes said: "What we discover when we talk to parents is that some of them never played with their own parents or had books read to them. We're teaching them skills that they never had passed down to them.

"We move on to changing behaviours that are dangerous or rude or difficult.

"We want parents who feel very comfortable in their parenting role. Part of the parent's job is to say no and mean it. Restoring that ability is vital to a parent."

The theory goes that this will create happier, better-behaved children, making life more bearable for areas blighted by "problem families".

Three years ago Mr Blair's idea was described as the personification of New Labour's meddling.

'Was it sufficient?'

But Ms Rhodes thinks the original intervention - and its recent extension - did not go far enough.

She said: "In many ways, looked at as a straight pledge by Tony Blair, the government has gone a long way to fulfilling it.

"The debate might now be about whether the pledge was sufficient.

"The focus on parenting came about because the government asked what was the one most useful thing it could do to improve things, given its limits of funding and political support.

"Changing parenting was the answer."

The system the government uses is based on those in the US and Australia, where staff get a manual on how to run classes and offer advice.

Ms Rhodes said: "The trouble is it's difficult to ask practitioners to use a manual. It's very prescriptive.

"Also, parenting isn't just about your relationship with children. Families have a multiplicity of relationships.

"Relationships between the parents themselves are important. We need politicians to be thinking about adult relationships too. The government's decided it's got to address this. It's going to put out a green paper on it."

'Crisis of confidence'

Ms Rhodes added: "The original pledge did not deal fully with the underlying issues of misery in a family.

"These problems have a longer history than merely that parent's relationship with their child.

"These courses are terribly helpful in things that they are designed for. But we need much more flexible resources.

"We've got a real crisis of confidence. The Daily Mail said the other day that we a nation of bad parents.

"Actually we are a nation of quite good parents but there have always been families in severe distress and trouble who cause distress for others in their communities.

"Mostly they need services that join together to address all the problems. It really works best when the families have got a lot of people working with them."

A lot of people working together equals spending a lot of government money. In these straitened times, ministers might think twice about going further beyond Mr Blair's original pledge.


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