Panel response

This section summarises responses from panel members to the evidence review, and the findings they considered significant.

Paul Bradshaw, senior research director, Growing Up in Scotland

Growing Up in Scotland is conducting longitudinal research which is tracking families and children through transition points and looking at the precursors to and implications of these in children's lives.  The GUS study provides context for some of the questions arising from the census data.

Some observations on the evidence response are:

1. Fewer divorces

The fact that there are fewer divorces could be a positive but as the evidence shows, there are also fewer marriages and more cohabitation.  The lower divorce rates only tell part of the story; people who live in cohabiting relationships also separate but data isn't available on rates and duration of relationships. From the GUS findings, we know that one in ten children experiences parental separation before the age of five.  Parental separation leads to lower incomes, poorer maternal mental health and lone parenthood, all of which contribute to poorer outcomes for children.  We do not know a lot about the cohabiting parents who break up, but the dissolution of cohabiting relationships will have a similar effect on children as divorce.

2. Increased working hours for lone parents

The increased working hours for lone parents could be positive in terms of indicating a route out of poverty.  It could reflect improved access to childcare and the impact of tax credits making work more attractive.  However, it may simply reflect the requirement to work more hours in order to get in-work benefits and the high costs of childcare.  Lone parents rely heavily on informal sources of childcare, often grandparents - and the fact that parents are older also means that grandparents are older too.  And those grandparents may be working for longer (with the increase in the pension age).  Although the Scottish Government is increasing childcare, this is for pre-school children and entitlement is one three-hour session a day in the morning or afternoon.  There is very little flexibility in how this care is provided and it does not fit with parental working patterns and what employers expect of a working day.

3. Number of dependent children per family decreased

It is not clear why there are fewer children per family.  Likely factors are:

  • The consequence of marrying later and having children older
  • Medical and biological reasons associated with later conception
  • Affordability
  • Housing

All these factors combined may mean that it is more difficult for people to have children now.

Marion Davis, policy and research advisor, One Parent Families Scotland

Each family is unique with its own strengths and challenges but the reality is that, for some families, life is made more difficult, not because they are innately less capable, but because structural inequalities create huge challenges. Other research shows that 43% of individuals in a lone parent household are in poverty compared to 21% of those in couple families.

There are limitations in what existing data sources tell us about the characteristics and circumstances of lone parents. Small adjustments to existing large-scale surveys could yield useful information to inform policy to help lone parents; for example the British Crime Survey could be used to help provide a fuller and more representative picture of lone parents' experience of domestic abuse.

What we can be clear about is that families headed by a lone parent are a significant proportion of families with dependent children in many local communities - some significantly higher than others - in particular, in areas of deprivation where lone parent households can be over 60% of all households. If we are to tackle child poverty, and to eradicate it by 2020, then policies tailored to lone parents and the challenges they face will be required if we are to achieve the ultimate goal of giving every child the best start in life and ensuring that their parents can also achieve their potential and be all they can be.

1. Levels of lone parent households

The report highlights that the levels of lone parent family households (LPHH) remained stable between 2001 and 2011. However these figures include LPHHs with non-dependants and shows them as a percentage of all households. These are not the most useful comparisons for policy and service delivery purposes.

In fact, there has been a substantial increase in the number of LPHHs and the key statistic - the percentage of LPHHs with dependent children as a proportion of all families with dependent children - has also increased over the 10 years.

Census data comparisons show that the numbers of lone parent households have increased from 151,452 to 170,000 between 2001 and 2011 - an increase from 24.5% to 27% of families with a dependent child. (Of these 13,000 are lone fathers.) This significant increase has important policy implications.

2. Number of looked after children

At 31 July 2011 there were 16,231 looked after children in Scotland. Both the number and proportion have increased every year between 2001 and 2011. The number of looked after children at July 2011 was the highest figure since 1981, and an increase of 5,334 children since 2001. We know from the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland (CELCIS) at Strathclyde University that a high percentage are children from one parent families.  Again this is a significant policy issue affecting lone parents.

3. Kinship care

The evidence shows that most kinship carers are grandparents, amongst whom there are high levels of disability particularly for grandmothers. This poses yet another challenge for those providing kinship care, as they may themselves have significant support needs:

  • 80% of grandmother carers were single compared with only 11% of grandfather carers
  • 90% of sibling carers were single. When broken down by gender the differences are striking, 50% of male sibling carers were single compared with 89% of female sibling carers
  • 78% of other relative female carers were single

Therefore a significant proportion of kinship carers are lone parents, and affected by all the challenges lone parents face in addition to be being a kinship carer.

4. Parental working patterns

The census shows that between 2001 and 2011, the percentage of lone mothers in employment increased from 47% to 58%. However 64% of lone mothers in employment work part-time. This is also a gender issue as 57,000 lone mothers work part-time and only 1,500 fathers work part-time.

The reality behind these statistics is that many lone parents struggle to take up full-time employment with the opportunity to be in better-paid more sustainable long-term employment. Policy challenges are clear - the need for affordable, flexible, high quality, accessible childcare; and family friendly employment within a legislative framework.

Stella Gibson, chief executive of The Spark

The evidence review indicates that divorce and marriage levels have not changed significantly, but cohabitation has, and we do not know enough about the breakdown of cohabiting relationships.

GUS indicates that one in ten children experience parental separation by the age of five.  The fact that people are staying married for longer could be positive.  But equally, it could mean that they cannot afford to split up.

Evidence from parents approaching the Spark indicates that married couples come for support after ten years of marriage; for cohabiting couples it is five years. This suggests that cohabiting couples are hitting crisis at an earlier stage.  It is important for us to look at all the children involved with relationship breakdown (step families) - it is not just the adults involved who experience the breakdown, it is all the children living with the conflict.

Many people experience problems in their relationship - at every stage.  The important issue is encouraging people to go and get help and professional support when they need it - and to get it early.  It is also important for people to get support when they split up so they do not take the baggage into another relationship.  So, there are questions about how we normalise relationship support.

We need people to talk about relationships and to reduce stigma: relationship first aid and identifying the early signs of relationship distress.

The one in ten children affected by relationship breakdown will be the parents of the future.  So, we need to make it OK for people to look for relationship support.

Bill Alexander, director of health and social care, Highland Council

The evidence review indicates that there are lots of families and lots of children - this is good news because we need children and families for a sustainable society.  But this may change over the next 20 years with an ageing society and less employment.  Given this, it is very disappointing that local authorities and health boards did not attend this seminar in greater numbers as they need to understand families in order to support them.

1. Looked after children

The report indicates that there are significant issues which are not new but which we do not fully understand.  There are significantly more looked after children at a time of fewer referrals to the Children's Reporter.  They are much younger and are staying in care a little bit less.  We are doing better at permanency.

An aspect which the report does not get quite right is about children looked after at home and children looked after away from home.  The report says that most children are looked after in the family.  They are looked after in a family, but less than a third are in their own birth family.  Significantly more children are looked after and accommodated than are looked after at home.  The number of children accommodated has risen by 5,000 in the last 10-12 years and at home by 500.  It has started to plateau in some areas and is coming down in some but the number of children looked after at home is reducing first.

This has started happening in Highland and it is a good news story as it indicates the success of early intervention.  Workers are saying that they do not need to go to the Children's Hearing system to get compulsory measures for looked after children at home because they are working in partnership with those families.  If that is what is happening then we need to understand it, as it is not how we have understood the world in the past.

2. Kinship care

There is a four-fold increase in formal kinship care for looked after children.  This is good news because children do better in kinship care than in foster or residential care.  It is also cheaper so we can get more services to more children and families.  About 20% of looked after children in Highland are in kinship care but there is a prejudice about it still in the system generally.  We are good at thinking about kinship care when children are first looked after but I am not sure that we are so good about it once children are settled - we tend to leave them where they are and avoid moving them unless there is placement breakdown.  But I think we should look at that because of the benefits to children in the longer term.

We also need to look at improving support for children in informal kinship care as that will increase in the future.  The age of kinship carers, grandparents, will age as the population ages, and we need to look at how we support older people to look after young children, especially those they are related to.

3. Supporting parents and busy lives

For families under stress and pressure life is a challenge.  We are doing good work around 'programmes' but our work has to be about more than programmes.  We need to be able to recognise the diversity of families and how children transition between different families.  We are less confident at working with some families such as civil partnerships and lone fathers - this is something the third sector is better at doing than the public sector.  We need to understand what advice and support parents need at different key stages of children's lives and how we get on board with the childcare revolution.  The 600 hours is a start and in five years it will be double that and for all two-year-olds.  How will we engage with families when children are in childcare for most of the week?

We often refer to the Swedish model.  But is it different.  They have different understanding about attachment and bonding: children spend a full year to 18 months at home with their parents before they go into childcare; childcare is a partnership between the child and the parent and the institution.  That is not the case in Scotland.