Calling all radicals


Journal of Children's Services

ISSN: 1746-6660

Article publication date: 16 September 2011



Axford, N. and Little, M. (2011), "Calling all radicals", Journal of Children's Services, Vol. 6 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Calling all radicals

Article Type: Editorial From: Journal of Children's Services, Volume 6, Issue 3

Do you know any radical practitioners – passionate about social justice, always fighting to secure children their entitlements? Do they love working with families, building strong and respectful relationships? Are they desperate to get out into the community, escaping the office with its paperwork and bureaucracy? And are they creative, known for their innovative ideas? If the answer to all of these questions is “yes”, these people are likely to be very good at engaging parents in evidence-based programmes. They are also much in demand.

In the current policy climate, agencies are encouraged to adopt evidence-based programmes, yet those agencies often struggle to get the right people along when they implement them. It is hard, for example, to get parents to attend parenting programmes, and parents often find such programmes difficult to access. The result is empty chairs, wasted money, blighted lives, a failure to replicate findings from efficacy trials, and frustration all round. So what can be done?

One answer is to take the programmes to where people are. In this edition, Matthew Sanders and his colleagues investigate the potential of tailoring a parenting programme to meet the needs of working parents. The parents they surveyed were enthusiastic about parenting support being delivered via the workplace. Such an approach should be part of a wider cultural change in service delivery (Morawska and Sanders, 2006). This can be illustrated with reference to a recent study of an evidence-based parenting programme in six children’s centres in a city in England (Social Research Unit, 2011).

To be eligible for the programme children needed to be 3-4 years old and score above the “high need” threshold on the Total Difficulties score of the parent-completed Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. Nearly144 such children were needed across the six centres. There were two routes in: open access events at children’s centres, and invitations to local partner agencies to refer families. Just over 2,900 children aged 3-4 lived in the six children’s centre catchment areas. A city-wide survey showed that 15 per cent of such children fell into the “high need” category – 437 potential clients. So, how well did the centres do at finding them?

Recruitment started in Spring, with groups scheduled to take place during the Autumn. By the end of the year the actual number of eligible children recruited stood at 85 – far lower than anticipated. Some centres did better than others – one identified 45 per cent of eligible children, whereas another only found 6 per cent. Many centres struggled – despite, in many cases, assurances at the outset by centre managers that reaching the target would be straightforward because they already serve eligible families. What went wrong?

Interviews with service providers and a survey of parents and other agencies highlighted several problems. To start with, centre staff felt that they did not know who was referring whom and in some cases did not accept that recruitment was in their court. The publicity materials were criticised for using negative language and poor quality images, and for providing limited information about the programme, including venue, time and incentives to attend. Centres lacked sufficient capacity to deliver the programme and provide the necessary “wraparound” care to enable and encourage parents’ attendance – making phone calls or home visits, and providing transport, crèche, refreshments and interpreting. Some providers worried that the programme targeted parents – and was therefore stigmatizing – and that it limited professional discretion. Partner agencies were reluctant to make referrals in case families didn’t get the programme and were disappointed.

The result was poor provider buy-in, which undermined recruitment efforts. Target group families simply did not hear about the programme. Then, once it started, drop-out was high, at least early on. This is far from being an isolated case.

The team consulted the literature (e.g. Broadhurst, 2003; Spoth et al., 2000). This showed that because vulnerable families are often known to many different practitioners in various agencies, and practitioners are reluctant to refer families to a new service, the only way to connect them with a new service is through extensive communication and collaboration. It showed that failure to invest time in engaging families and ensuring that practitioners have the high level of interpersonal skills to relate well to vulnerable families will make it hard for a parenting programme to get off the ground. Further, parents simply will not use services that are not simple to access: services need to fit the rhythms of modern life, for example by holding evening (or workplace) sessions for parents who work. Some parents will need help getting from A to B and most will expect help with childcare. Other lessons were that parents will not turn up if they cannot see the need or likely benefit, or if they feel anxious or threatened, and that extra effort is usually needed to make services accessible to disadvantaged and minority ethnic group families.

Returning to the field, the team invested more time and energy in briefing partner agencies about the programme and helping them understand that it was going to be useful to parents. A new recruitment pack was compiled and distributed, and thumbnail sketches of eligible children were used to help staff understand the screening criteria. Extra money was paid to providers to cover refreshments, crèche and interpreting, and centres received an additional payment for high recruitment and retention rates. Outreach events were held in residential areas and public spaces frequented by families with young children.

Visit, call, then visit and call again

It still took another 12 months to recruit enough families, but some important lessons emerged. Providers need to be engaged first if they are to engage parents. They need to understand and believe in the programme. A clear recruitment process is needed, and everyone involved should be trained. The person answering the phone to a desperate parent whose child is climbing the curtains needs to be able to explain what the course is, when it takes place, and so on. Commissioners need to invest in and incentivize recruitment and retention. It should not be seen as an add-on.

There is also need to be creative and “get out”. Instead of putting up a few posters and hoping that someone will turn up, practitioners need to go to where parents of young children hang out: the playground, shops, school gate, zoo, library, GP surgery and so on. And they need to build relationships with parents: visit, call, then visit and call again. Programmes that are good at engaging parents train staff in recruitment and enable them to pay parents face-to-face visits.

Engaging families in evidence-based parenting programmes is radical. Lots of children and families who need such programmes do not get them. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates States Parties to ensure that children develop healthily and that they are properly cared for and protected. Children with particular needs, such as behaviour problems owing to lack of parenting skills, have a right to be helped. They are entitled to assistance that would help to address the underlying problem. It cannot be right for services that would help such children to be withheld because insufficient effort has been made to make them accessible.

Nick Axford, Michael Little


Broadhurst, K. (2003), “Engaging parents and carers with family support services: what can be learned from research on help-seeking?”, Child & Family Social Work, Vol. 8 No. 4, pp. 341–50

Morawska, A. and Sanders, M.R. (2006), “A review of parental engagement in parenting interventions and strategies to promote it”, Journal of Children’s Services, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 29–40

Social Research Unit (2011), Engaging Parents in Parenting Programmes: Lessons from Research and Practice, SRU, Dartington

Spoth, R., Redmond, C. and Shin, C. (2000), “Modeling factors influencing enrollment in family-focused preventive intervention research”, Prevention Science, Vol. 1 No. 4, pp. 213–25

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