Getting it right for every parent

SallyAnn Kelly considers what the national parenting strategy should contain and do.

There can be no doubt about the Scottish Government's commitment to children and young people. It has made them a priority through strategies such as the Early Years Framework and the Getting it right for every child approach (GIRFEC). It has also promised new legislation on children's rights and children's services.

Its manifesto promise of a national parenting strategy is further evidence of commitment. This has been earmarked as an early priority for the new government and, since the election, there has already been considerable discussion and debate about the direction it should take and where it should fit in with legislation and other policy and strategies.

Who the strategy is for

From the early discussions, the strategy promises to offer support to all parents, whether they need a little or a lot of help, and regardless of the age of their children.

On the face of it, the idea of a strategy which aims to mainstream parental support from the state is a brave one. Parents and families are instinctively private about their home lives and the idea of the state getting involved in raising their children is one they are far from comfortable with. The ongoing debate on smacking children is a case in point.

This is one of the biggest hurdles the strategy will face. It must be meaningful enough in order to achieve its objectives, but not so intrusive that most parents and families will reject it.

The Scottish Government can start to tackle this through public debate about how we view children and families and how we raise our children. Such debate would allow the idea of mainstreaming parental support to be openly explored. The debate should be supported with a high-profile government-backed public awareness campaign on positive parenting aimed at all parents.If such a public campaign was launched ahead of the publication of the national parenting strategy it would certainly help to ease its arrival.

As well as a risk that the strategy is too intrusive, there is an equal risk that the strategy will simply be another document amongst the many others about children and young people. The Scottish Government must give it the attention it deserves.

What should such a strategy contain?

The strategy should be simple, linked to actions and have significant resources put behind it as well as the power to act and scrutinise.

If it is to be effective, it cannot ignore the previous work in favour of its own 'new' ideas, but must recognise and incorporate what has already been developed. It must bring together the existing frameworks, policies and strategies. It also needs to build on current parenting work such as the national Play Talk Read campaign.

The strategy must bring together all the different agencies involved supporting children and families and implementing policy. Far too often, agencies and services across health, local government and national government are disjointed and operating in isolation when they should be complementary and working together.

The strategy must recognise, and be an integral part of, the promised new legislation on children and young people including the Children's Rights Bill this year and proposed Children's Services Bill. This should include legislating for GIRFEC to help ensure that it is being properly implemented across Scotland and not just in patches as at present.

The strategy should link in with other promised initiatives such as the Early Years Fund and the proposed children and family centres. Acting as a hub, family centres would be in a good position to promote and develop a multi-disciplinary approach to supporting families. This support would need to be mainstream and non-judgemental and run through the family centres. Family centres must not be allowed to be stigmatised into being places just for 'vulnerable' and 'at risk' families. They should incorporate universal and targeted support so the benefits of peer learning and community development can be realised.

Its principles

The strategy should be based on three principles: prepare, advise and support. It must focus on all aspects of parenting from pre-conception, pre-birth, birth, early years, school years, age 16 to 18, and transition to adulthood.

Under the theme of 'preparation', the strategy must work before people start families, beginning as early as possible in schools with family planning education. Pre-natal education and the role of GP surgeries and family planning services all need to be considered as part of the strategy.

Ensuring the right advice is available at the right time to parents and families will be an important element of the strategy. Parents and families also need to know how and where to go to get advice. In a poll conducted for Parenting across Scotland (PAS) in 2010, almost three quarters (72%) of the 1,000 parents surveyed said they did not know where to go for advice and support in bringing up their children. This figure rose to 82% for parents in the most deprived areas of the country.

Finally, the strategy should make clear when and how support should be given to parents. It needs to address all the issues which can interfere with parenting, whether the challenges parents themselves face or particular issues about children's health and development. There should be different levels of support for parents including information, group/peer work, mentoring and crisis intervention.

All parents need advice and support

The strategy should encourage the idea that it is completely natural and expected that all parents need advice and support and that getting advice before and during parenthood is seen as the norm and not just for vulnerable parents or parents at risk.

The strategy also needs to encompass all those in a parenting role, especially the corporate parent. Looked after children and young people experience poorer outcomes in education, health, safety, employment, poverty and housing than other children. These poor outcomes follow them right through care and beyond. In many ways, the parent needing the most support is the corporate parent.

There should also be a specific focus on fathers to ensure their role is valued, understood and that they get clear messages about the essential contribution they make as well as their responsibilities. Often fathers can experience a lack of support. They do not get the same level of peer support as mothers, do not access information and can feel isolated.

Power and authority

The strategy needs to be supported with relevant, accurate and up-to-date data. At present there is not enough data about some of our most vulnerable children, particularly looked after children. This makes it increasingly difficult to recognise and understand issues, as well as target resources.

The strategy must also be backed up with power and authority, and close ministerial and cabinet scrutiny in order to ensure that it meets its goals. There should be regular reporting to Parliament and reports and statistics to review progress and adjust priorities.

The national parenting strategy offers a unique opportunity to articulate a vision for growing up in Scotland. We should grab it with both hands.

About the author

SallyAnn Kelly is acting director of Barnardo's Scotland. She has over 20 years' experience in social work settings. She has extensive experience of child protection issues and has worked in areas of children and families social work, substance misuse and criminal justice. She has worked in a number of different councils in Scotland and has gained a broad perspective about the different approaches to service delivery.