23/01/2014 10:34 GMT | Updated 25/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Putting People, Not Process, First for Families

The Head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said on 22nd January that parents and families should take more responsibility for their own lives. It's a view I share. 4Children's own Family Commission told us that families, even very vulnerable families, want to be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

I also agree that this won't happen without the crucial work of support workers on the ground. Yet, I do not think his suggestion that these workers need to "send out some tough messages to families that are not looking after themselves properly," would in itself have the desired effect of turning around the lives of our most troubled families.

Everyone is well aware of the scale of the challenge: in England, 500,000 families are on the edge of crisis and "just coping" according to one report; and 120,000 families have been identified by the Government as part of its Troubled Families initiative, as having multiple and complex problems. We need to help families to help themselves to tackle problems head on before it is too late.

Yet, all too often, when children and families are experiencing problems, they are treated like the sum total of their problems by a succession of support workers they have to deal with. These workers' focus - albeit often inadvertently and with the best of intentions - is on ticking their own individual boxes, rather than on the children and families they are meant to be supporting, maintaining only superficial contact.

This fails to create a long lasting solution, at a time when children and families need a constant and trusted presence in their lives; it's also an expensive and wasteful approach. We need joined-up support, centred on individual needs and strengths.

So what's the alternative? David Robinson of the Early Action Task Force is absolutely correct in saying that we need to build long-term, high quality, "deep value" relationships with families in crisis, and with families at the very heart of their own decision making processes. Given the comments of Ofsted's head this week, this call, made in an essay (Flourishing children, smarter government: Learning from the frontline) published this week by 4Children, is certainly timely.

4Children has always asked families what they think. A report published earlier in the month to launch our manifesto, Making Britain Great For Children and Families, based on YouGov polling, found general dissatisfaction with how family friendly public services were across the board, whether it be GPs' surgeries, hospitals, schools or local councils themselves.

In his essay, David Robinson has put forward a radical idea of one way in which to seek improvements, calling for all public services to work on a principle of "readiness," in which arbitrary transition points - such as leaving hospital after an operation, leaving prison or leaving primary school - are removed.

Instead, he argues, we need flexibility based on when an individual is actually ready for the level and type of support they're getting to change. This would be a practical readiness test reflecting the fact that everybody - and every family - is different, and has different support needs. And it would be a change in culture within our public services, to one of no artificial time limits; no one size fits all; and no box ticking targets.