Relationships are foundational to individual and social wellbeing | Recommendations from the Local Family Offer programme

Over the last year the Department for Work and Pensions has given 12 local authorities across the UK access to expert support (from Innovation Unit and One Plus One) and funding in the development of local family offers focused on improving the quality of couple or coparenting relationships with a view to improving outcomes for children. Many of these LA's are Early Intervention Foundation places. We are pleased to announce that all 12 have now been awarded funding to implement their ideas.

The evidence is clear. Relationships (not just relationships between parents and children, or between parents, but all relationships both inside and outside the family) are foundational to individual and social wellbeing.

Increasingly we understand that the more relationally capable a parent, the more likely they will be to exercise resilience in the face of adversity, foster their child’s social, emotional and cognitive development, and engage productively with the world around them (through work or community activity).

If we are to take seriously the job of prevention and early intervention we must recognise that only by working with adults to build their relational capability can we improve the life chances of our most vulnerable children, sustainably and over time. This is a view shared by some of the world’s leading early childhood development thinkers, for example Jack Shonkoff at the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child:

Better outcomes for vulnerable, young children could be achieved by greater attention to strengthening the resources and capabilities of the adults who care for them rather than continuing to focus primarily on the provision of child-focused enrichment, parenting education, and informal support.”

We believe that the Local Family Offer programme represents a benchmark for local authorities interested in the prevention and early intervention agendas. Through focusing explicitly on the quality of couple relationships, the programme is challenging local authorities to think more holistically about how they support families. It is encouraging them to recognise and work with the relational capability of parents and families.

In Newcastle, the team will work with a cohort of families who they know are more likely to be at risk of deteriorating relationship quality and family breakdown. Specifically these are families who live in the most deprived wards in the city who are going through a significant transition (in this instance the birth of a new child), and for whom there is a history of social and emotional difficulties – all significant risk factors that affect the quality and stability of relationships.

Through identifying these families early and providing a range of interventions that will increase the resilience of the relationship in the face of such stress, the team hope to reduce the likelihood of that family experiencing violence or break down further down the line.

In Croydon, the team have identified that the high numbers of families who are at risk of financial instability are also, based on the evidence, at risk of deteriorating relationship quality. Their hypothesis is that by working with those families, at the point at which they come forward for help with their financial difficulties (to the council’s Gateway team) they can build the resilience of the couple relationship, protecting the family against the stress associated with financial instability.

Croydon and Newcastle are at the beginning of their journeys. Like most of the authorities on the Local Family Offer programme, they have, with our help, made significant progress in using the evidence to identify when to intervene, and with whom. They have also thought carefully about the kinds of interventions they might need to design and implement, as well as the system conditions that might support those interventions to be successful. The publication of the Early Intervention Foundation’s review of the evidence in relation to couple or coparenting relationship interventions is well timed, and will help them develop their thinking over the next year.

The Local Family Offer programme has given 12 local authorities the space and time to think seriously about relationships and their critical role in prevention and early intervention. They are the vanguard. More will follow. If you recognise, either from the data or through talking to practitioners in your locality, the value and importance of relationships, then keep track of the local family offer programme.

Written by Jonny Mallinson, Senior Project Lead at Innovation Unit and Penny Mansfield, Director of OnePlusOne

If you are interested in receiving Innovation Unit’s newsletter, sign up here.