What next for England’s troubled families?

Louise Woodruff says the Government needs to learn lessons, but not to give up on helping families that desperately need it.

This week the Government published the long-awaited National Evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme and the Public Accounts Committee will be taking evidence for their inquiry into the programme. There has been a lot of coverage about how the programme has so far failed to make a significant impact and the validity of claims that large numbers of families were ‘turned around’. Public scrutiny of the programme is required, especially as we can now read the evaluation. But we need to ensure that the sound principles behind investing in whole-family working with families with complex needs are not abandoned because of concerns over whether the Troubled Families Programme is working.

The problems experienced by families with multiple and complex needs are usually deeply entrenched and intertwined with high levels of poverty. Families struggle with low incomes alongside problems such as substance misuse, offending behaviour, truancy and domestic violence. Supporting these families to turn around their lives is, by definition, going to be very challenging, especially when local services are under severe pressure. Success, if it comes, is likely to take time. The fact that extremely high success rates were being reported after only a few months should have rung alarm bells.

JRF’s strategy to solve poverty sets out what is needed to really ‘turn around the lives’ of families with multiple and complex needs. The Troubled Families Programme was designed using evidence from earlier ‘Family Intervention Projects’. The core ingredients which make these programmes effective are clear:

  • Workers dedicated to a family
  • Practical ‘hands on’ help
  • A persistent, assertive and challenging approach
  • A ‘whole family’ approach (but sensitive to any concerns about domestic violence and coercive control)
  • Having a common purpose and agreed action

However, a targeted programme is also likely to require wider change to be successful. Local authorities and other partners such as the NHS need to respond to transform their services in response to this ‘whole family’ approach. Having the right staff in place, with the training and resources they need is the bedrock of successful interventions. Those key workers then need to be able to connect families with the practical support to address their difficulties – adequate incomes, mental health services, educational and relationship support, addiction services. Focusing on behaviour is not enough - help dealing with financial and material hardship must go alongside it.

The JRF’s five point plan demonstrates what can be done to boost incomes and reduce costs; deliver an effective benefit system; improve education standards and raise skills; strengthen families and communities and promote long-term economic growth benefiting everyone. The evaluation of the Troubled Families provides a detailed analysis of how to deliver good quality whole-family services to support families with complex needs. It is vital that this continues, but the Troubled Families evaluation also shows that true transformation will also require us to be ambitious about solving poverty in the UK.