The evaluation of the Child Poverty Pilots for Separating Parents, which was led by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR), has been published by the Department for Education (DfE). This initiative was part of a suite of nine child poverty pilots operating across England since 2008, representing a varied set of policy interventions each testing a range of different approaches to reduce child poverty.
Between October 2009 and March 2011 ten partnerships consisting of voluntary and statutory services received Government funding to provide services under the umbrella of the Child Poverty Pilots: Delivering Improved Services for Separating Families. The aim of this initiative was to test how best to co-ordinate local services for separating and separated parents and their children, especially those who are disadvantaged, in order that access to financial, practical, legal and emotional help could be speeded up, and parental conflict and the negative impact of separation on children’s outcomes minimised. The Department for Education (DfE) commissioned the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR) to lead the evaluation, in partnership with Bryson Purdon Social Research (BPSR) and TNS-BMRB.
ContextAnnually around 350,000 children in UK are affected by their parents’ separation and there is well-documented evidence of the far-reaching emotional, social and financial effects on them, and their parents, when a relationship ends (1). Children’s academic success, behaviour, psychological well-being, self-esteem and peer relations could all be negatively affected and especially so if the separation and its aftermath were acrimonious. A poor relationship between adult couples can also impair the ability to provide effective parenting and inhibit regular and positive contact between children and their non-resident parent. Parental separation also typically comes at a financial cost to the state, estimated recently at £37 billion per year(2). But family breakdown and crisis can also lead to economic disadvantage for children, given the increased risk of parents dropping out of the labour market or having difficulties gaining employment which accommodates childcare responsibilities, which then increases the number of children living in poverty.
ObjectivesThe objectives of the pilots projects in this programme were for separating and recently separated parents to have:
- less debt, quicker access to benefits;
- easier access to integrated support;
- less long-term emotional distress and less opportunity for problems to escalate;
- fewer problems with accommodation arrangements;
- more stable child contact arrangements.
MethodologyThe evaluation sought to explore both process and, as far as possible, impact through providing evidence on how effective the pilot projects had been. However, owing to the relatively brief time period of the evaluation it was not possible to measure longer-term outcomes such as child educational performance or families’ improved emotional well-being.Using a multi-methods approach, the research was designed to provide an overall assessment of the pilots and to draw out any implications of the type of model(s) and costs should such an initiative be rolled out nationally. Quantitative data came from monitoring information collected by the pilots on 1,944 parents and the services they had received, and from a telephone survey of 292 of these parents after their engagement with the pilots. Data on performance and cost provided by the pilots assessed the relative cost effectiveness. Qualitative data came from interviews with the ten project managers and 41 delivery partners in the pilots at the beginning and end of the study and from interviews with 75 parents after they initially accessed services and, where possible, followed up three months later.
- Given the time constraints of both their implementation and this evaluation, the pilots appeared to have been successful in meeting overall aims. The findings suggest that, for substantial proportions of the families, their circumstances and well-being improved during the period when these could be assessed.
- According to the parents interviewed, the pilots played a significant role, particularly around improving family relationships and parent and child well-being. There was a less noticeable impact on contact and financial outcomes, but this might have been different if a long-term study had been undertaken.
- Pilots offering a wider range of services, through a holistic or ‘one-stop-shop’ model, had better outcomes on the whole than those which offered a narrow range. They made it easier for parents to access services of different types simultaneously, as well as providing more time with a member of staff, which avoided parents getting lost amongst multiple providers.
- However the pilots offering a wider set of services were associated with considerably higher cost per family principally because the time spent with each family is so much greater.
- Parents found emotional support (such as individual counselling) the most beneficial service for them in the short and potentially longer term, even though many did not actively seek counselling support. Mediation, on the other hand, which was often the primary reason for parents approaching services, was not as successful since it was common for one partner to refuse to co-operate.
- In terms of effective partnership working, this owed more to factors such as partners’ shared values, trust, clarity of roles and targets, and clear leadership from project managers than it did to the sector (statutory of voluntary) from which individual organisations or project managers came.
- However, a key issue for projects was the brief time available for them to establish partnerships, set up their pilots and deliver new services to families. As a result, fewer families than anticipated were able to access services.
- Although the pilots initially focused on helping recently separating parents, they also supported parents who had lived apart for some time. Over time, with changing circumstances and attitudes, new problems frequently arise in relation to the separation.
- Similarly, many parents that are not conventionally described as disadvantaged, who were in employment and home owners, also needed support from the pilots. Where employment was low-paid and there are debts, the ending of a relationship can easily send one or both parents into a state of poverty.
- The majority of separated parents accessed the pilots alone rather than as a couple and mothers were far more likely than fathers to attend. Nethertheless, the pilots were successful in engaging a considerable number of fathers (a fifth of parents) – a considerable achievement given the known reluctance of men to use services of this kind.
- A substantial number of mothers looked for support in dealing with domestic violence. This suggests a continuing need for voluntary sector services to deal with this issue, especially at vulnerable times in a parent’s relationship.