Parental service use and informal networks in the early years

Growing Up in Scotland (GUS)

Understanding patterns of contact and engagement with formal 'parenting' services is useful for practitioners for planning and delivering such services and key to ensuring the success of the 'parenting and family capacity' strand of the Early Years Framework. A new report from GUS looks at parents' patterns of service use during their child's early years and considers how informal social support relates to service use.

'Service use' is defined as any contact parents have had with a wide range of statutory or voluntary agencies in order to seek advice, information or support. GUS asks about sources of advice and support during pregnancy, for child health and behaviour and also the transitions to pre-school and primary school. GUS also collects data about contact with health and social work professionals, attendance at ante-natal classes, use of childcare and attendance at parenting groups and classes.

Around two in five parents (41%) were classed as 'low service users' when their child was ten months old, rising slightly to 43% when the child was aged four. Low service use was associated with disadvantage. Families with lower educational qualifications, lower household incomes and lower socioeconomic classification were more likely to be low service users.  18% of families were classed as repeatedly low service users, making low use of services throughout the first five years of their child's life.

Younger mothers and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely than other mothers to have attended ante-natal classes. Reasons for non-attendance, such as not liking the group format and not knowing where classes were held, were more common than logistical reasons such as time, cost and travel barriers. Many mothers had not attended any parent and baby/toddler groups because they did not like groups and/or felt shy or awkward about attending.

Just over one quarter of parents were classed as 'reluctant' service users, meaning that they found it difficult to ask for help and were wary of interference from professionals. Reluctant service users had lower household incomes, were less likely to be in employment and more likely to have lower educational qualifications. They were also likely to have less confidence in themselves as parents and to have low actual service use. It is unclear whether lower service use results from reluctance or whether reluctance stems from poor prior experience of services.

Low service use is not necessarily compensated for by high levels of informal support from family and friends. Around one in seven families had low levels of both formal and informal support. Unsupported parents were more likely to have lower educational qualifications, to live in a household with no-one in employment and to live in urban areas, all known risk factors for isolation.

From the findings, it is clear that the parents whom service providers and policymakers often want most to reach are most those most reluctant to engage with services aimed at parents with young children. The findings suggest that provision of parenting support, including ante-natal, should be provided in a more targeted way in order to reach families who are resistant to the traditional format.

Growing Up in Scotland: Parental service use and informal networks in the early years by Judith Mabelis and Louise Marryat, Scottish Centre for Social Research

More information: Lesley Kelly

GUS is funded by the Scottish Government and is carried out by the Scottish Centre for Social Research in collaboration with the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh and the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow.