Sunday thoughts: Are we seeing a ‘technocratic’ family policy emerging? (and if so, good)
This week, the Prime Minister visited one of the new Family Hubs set up around the country and announced an expansion of them to more LAs. Although it was covered by the media, it hasn’t featured in any of the round ups of the PMs Big Political Week, which focused more on the Zelenskyy visit and the MoG changes to introduce a new Science, Innovation and Technology Department (which I wrote about here).
I also had a conversation this week which makes me believe that the Parent Pledge is still very much on. Schools Week, in their magisterial yet depressing round up of ‘stuff from the Schools White Paper which has been kicked to the kerb’, has it as “unclear”, with an update “in due course”, but my understanding is that there is some work being done on it right now in Sanctuary Buildings and we can expect an update actually in due course, as opposed to ‘government due course’ which is often code for ‘in the same time frame as it takes for Liz Truss to become popular again’.
What these two announcements and pieces of work have in common is that they are not being done for media and political focus, but because the PM really believes in them. Although governments of all stripes sometimes get consumed with family policy, often work on them falls down either because it’s too difficult to execute, or it involves a strain of moralist judgement which in my experience officials get squeamish about, or because mad Ministers say things like “we want a pro natalist familiy policy in this government” and make people genuinely have discussions about how to ensure women in the UK have more children.
The Sunak government, though, appears non crazy, not in search of a headline in this area, and keen to get something to happen. All of which are good signs.
The risk is, though, that different policy areas get bundled together as ‘government working on family policy and helping children with education’, when individual policies are quite different. The way I see it is that you can think of this area on a simple 2 x 2. On the x axis, we can think of policy that is either targeted towards those in need, or universal. On the y axis, we can have policy focused on what we might call core school curriculum type issues, or wider issues affecting children and families.
On this basis, you can see that for me, family hubs are very targeted, and aimed predominantly at addressing wider issues affecting families with young children — which could be educational but could (and should) also encompass debt advice, housing, family health and the like, which have spillover benefits into the environment in which a child grows up and learns. These should be predominantly targeted services, though it’s no bad thing that for some services, Family Hubs become more universal (particularly in a child’s early years, where things like post-natal depression, struggling with breastfeeding etc, cut across all groups in a way that isn’t as easy or impactful to just target for certain groups).
Parent Pledge, for me, is almost the opposite. It should be exclusively focused on how children are doing in school, and should be completely universal — though in terms of school actions and therefore continued parental engagement, it will naturally become targeted for follow up work.
Just to flesh the 2 x 2 out, I’ve put in a continued delivery of NTP, which needs to absolutely remain a focus for this government, and hopefully continue on a cross party basis and be continued after the election, and also an expansion of childcare and early years support, to which ditto. These aren’t the focus of this piece, but I do want to come back to them.
I’ve written about Parent Pledge before — I am a huge fan, even though it was met with some disdain when it was announced as part of the White Paper. I find it utterly dispiriting that Teacher Tapp data shows the percentage of schools claiming compliance with what the Parent Pledge asks for has dropped this year, to just 58% of all schools telling parents when their child is behind, and only 54% telling parents what they’re going to do about. Secondaries, unsurprisingly, are lower on both of these. This is, frankly, not good enough. And it’s also not good enough to say in defence of these figures that the Parent Pledge doesn’t exist yet, and is vague, when the objection of many to it being announced in the first place was that schools already do this activity! Pick a lane…..
But DfE does need to grip the parent pledge, and be very explicit on what it means. I’m afraid I favour a slightly more dirigiste approach to this now, in the context of two years’ worth of data showing that parents are not regularly kept informed, particularly at secondary. I’d favour a universal requirement to tell parents a) where their child is performing against age related expectations in each of the core curriculum areas; b) exactly what the school is going to do about it; c) what parents can do to help; and d) when the school will next provide an update or how parents can have a further conversation on this. I’m amenable to whether this is wrapped up into existing reports or parents evenings or targeted support from pastoral leads, but we simply can’t have a situation — again predominantly at secondary — where parents don’t know whether their child is behind, or even that they are not.
Parent Hubs are, as per the 2 x 2, trying to do something different, and as such I’d take a different policy approach. They aren’t universal services, and they shouldn’t be — just as SureStart wasn’t and shouldn’t have been. Officials are likely agonizing over whether they can reach the ‘hardest to reach families’, which is always the issue with these targeted services — almost by definition, given those families are hard to reach! For me, given the early stages, it would be a success if these hubs were providing targeted services to those who needed it, even if it didn’t have 100% coverage of the most acute needs in their area. The trick to making these work, in a decentralized way, is commissioning them smartly. Commissioning policy is deadly dull, but it’s the only way that in an era of tight budgets, Local Authorities can design Hubs properly in conjunction with DfE, experiment with different delivery approaches, and DfE can gather enough data to see what is working — all of which is needed in advance of any further, fuller rollout.
“Rishi Sunak has spent his life as a managerial technocrat”, said someone to the Sunday Times today. I think they meant is an insult, rather than the compliment I view it as. But if he is (and he clearly is), then the one advantage ought to be that smaller things which aren’t media friendly but which have the impact to be significant, like Parent Pledge and Family Hubs, get more attention in DfE and No10 than they would have done under previous Prime Ministers.