19/10/2016 10:49 BST | Updated 20/10/2017 06:12 BST

Troubled Families - A Flawed Approach To A Potentially Worthwhile Programme


The response to the quietly published national evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme in England is hardly surprising.

A programme introduced by a Secretary of State hell-bent on "categorising, stigmatising, laying blame" was never going to understand the real causes of the challenges faced by thousands of families across the UK.

Is anyone truly surprised that a payment by results model to turn around 'deviant' families on a series of outcomes which were largely outside of their control in the first place didn't work?

Labelling families does not work.

Stigmatising families does not work.

Lumping a series of unrelated challenges together does not work - a family in need of support isn't in the position they are in because they are all offending, out of work, claiming benefits, suffering from mental health problems, lacking in qualifications and with a long-term illness or disability.

Any one of those challenges requires a targeted intervention - sticking them all together under a catch-all programme is neither targeted nor ever going to be an effective intervention.

More concerning is the label of 'troubled families in the first place. Professor Ruth Levitas has argued that the coalition government painted a false picture of the issue:

In the term 'troubled families' it deliberately conflates families experiencing multiple disadvantage and families that cause 'trouble' as part of a strategy that was successful in feeding vindictive attitudes to the poor.

But, the real shame in all of this is that the core elements of the programme run the risk of being ignored amongst the clamour to denounce the approach.

Putting aside the flawed definition of 'troubled' and the false basis of identifying 'need', the programme explicitly recognised an approach that has been evidenced to work in other contexts and that is in fact the solution to many of the challenges faced by families across the country.

It sought to act in an earlier intervention way via targeted interventions to address problems before they escalate. It recognised the need for a single, dedicated worker to support a family and to build a relationship of trust and mutual respect.

It identified persistence as a key factor in tackling head on some of the tough challenges facing families - not giving up, not walking away, not handing over to another statutory service - but being there to engage them and overcome resistance.

Most importantly of all, it had a clear focus on the 'family as a whole' - recognising for example that school exclusion is often the result of a complex range of factors which can never be tackled with a school-based approach alone. Taking this example further, the evaluation recognises the strength in a family based approach to deal with the 'beyond the school gates' issues that schools are unable to effectively resolve.

Finally, the evaluation found some evidence of breaking down silos between agencies and professionals - a coming together of those with a shared interest in getting round the table and finding effective solutions.

All of these things are the basis of an effective way to intervene with families. Had a programme such as this been introduced with a clear focus, a much greater emphasis on the fidelity of the programme (i.e. monitoring the 152+ locally delivered programmes more closely) and less on focus on factors outwith the families control (e.g. benefits, employment) then it may have had a real, lasting and positive impact.

So while the headlines today are right on the money, let's not lose sight of the elements of this programme that could work and that must form the basis of future programmes to support these vulnerable families across the United Kingdom - including lessons for work in Scotland.

If we do, we'll be failing them all over again.