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Family Hubs: Liz Truss must focus on vital early years development

Family Hubs
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Matt Buttery

Chief Executive Officer at Triple P (UK) Ltd

Every year, thousands of parents come and go from health centres, hospitals, doctors surgeries and the many other locations where they can access antenatal classes. They go with the aim of preparing themselves for one of life’s biggest transitions and giving their unborn baby the best possible start in life. Those who are expecting are encouraged by health professionals to attend these classes. Recent data has shown that 84% of first-time mothers are offered  antenatal classes, to help guide and advise them through pregnancy, labour, birth and into the early days of parenthood.  

Yet soon after the baby is born, and just as mums and dads are acclimatising to their new role, this structured support with other parents tends to drop off. What’s also striking is that whilst antenatal classes are very much considered ‘the norm,’ there’s still a huge stigma attached to parenting programmes.

Parents need support now more than ever. The pandemic has left a generation of children behind, and parents need help to ensure their children catch up. We need to act now to prevent children from missing out any more than they already have. 

Family Hubs

75 Local Authority areas now have a unique opportunity to do just this. Through a combination of the Family Hubs and Best Start for Life funding, local areas across the country have an exciting opportunity to work more closely with parents than ever before. 

With this opportunity in mind, there has been a concerning lack of discussion around early years and family policy in the hustings for the next Prime Minister. It is my hope that now Liz Truss has been elected, this will change. The steps already taken by the previous administration are positive – but the number of local areas with funding can’t stop at 75. Parental support cannot be limited to the luck of where somebody lives – it must be universal across England. 

However, for those areas with access to the funding now, we know they want to make Family Hubs a success. Some of the ways we can is to ensure the following:

  • Where antenatal classes are taking place, make sure that parents know about the follow-on parenting courses available to them and even promote them as a continuation of the antenatal group.
  • Establish continuity for the support group which is formed in antenatal classes for before birth, follows through to postnatal support and the immediate aftermath of birth, and continues into early years as the child grows.  
  • Encourage every new parent leaving hospital to attend postnatal parenting classes and tell them about the benefits it can bring. 
  • To help reduce that stigma, courses should be communicated as ‘independent’ as far as possible. To as great an extent as possible, reassure parents that courses are confidential and no other services are involved. 
  • But perhaps most importantly, ensure the offer fits around the busy lifestyles of parents – with delivery options in-person, virtually or self-directed online – as well as at an intensity that meets their family’s needs. 

At Triple P, we regularly speak to parents with children of all ages about the struggles they face in their day-to-day family life. These challenges can range from common issues like bedtime routines and fussy eating to more complex difficulties, like managing anxiety and encouraging emotional regulation. 

Lockdown Generation

We know that some of their concerns originated during the pandemic, when playgroups, a visit to the park and play dates were closed off to parents. Research has shown the impact of Covid to be stark, with a 50% increase in mental health disorders and falling school attendance rates, partly due to crippling anxiety. And whilst these figures should give us cause to rethink our approach to the support given to young people, there is still a long way to go until a culture is created where parents feel comfortable asking for help.

When we spoke to parents about antenatal classes, the views held amongst parents were far more positive. They looked back fondly on the help they received, and felt encouraged to form relationships with other parents who they felt they could share the ups and downs with. 

Family Hubs must build on the foundations laid by antenatal classes, becoming the catalyst for better relationships between parents and local authorities. And with better relationships and increased communication comes a reduced stigma surrounding support for parents who are struggling. Attracting parents back into community circles through initiatives like Family Hubs, and making parenting support more accessible and acceptable, will go a long way to improving the social, emotional and academic life of children. 

Research from The Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies backs this up. It showed that prior participation in parenting interventions was the strongest predictor of future engagement. If we can engage parents in proven evidence-based parenting support early on, the argument is they are more likely to reach out for help later on. 

Final Thought

It is incumbent on us all to ensure that future generations have the best possible chance to reach their full potential. And this starts from ensuring that parents have the right tools at their disposal and the confidence to use them. This means that Liz Truss must make Family Hubs and the provision of support for parents a top priority. Only then can all children, particularly the ‘lockdown generation’ get the support they need to thrive.  

Photo Credit: Dmitry Makeev

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