18 Nov 2010

Parents braced for criticism with SureStart evaluation

Over the coming weeks, parents will be told how they are failing their children, starting with next Thursday’s SureStart evaluation. But how will voters respond to the criticism, asks Gaby Hinsliff.

Parents braced for criticism with SureStart evaluation (Reuters)

WHAT price do you put on good parenting?

Next Thursday we may move closer to an answer, when the government publishes its latest evaluation of SureStart, the multi-million pound programme to improve the lives of poorer children.

The report follows SureStart babies up to the age of five, and while it’s still under wraps, officials let slip some nuggets at a recent Lords select committee hearing. It seems we can, if nothing else, expect encouraging findings on “parental warmth” and interaction – the way parents talk to their children and encourage good behaviour.

It sounds fluffy, but the life-long impact of a strong bond between parent and preschooler can be startling. A good relationship forged now could translate into better school performance later, fewer teenage brushes with criminality – and ultimately, these children becoming better parents themselves.

Nothing cascades down the generations like good parenting: little else potentially saves the state so much cash and trouble.

Which means parents should brace themselves over coming weeks for a flurry of government-commissioned findings about what they’re doing wrong.

A major review of poverty from Labour MP Frank Field will shortly recommend shifting the state’s focus from financial hardship to poor parenting.

Field argues too many children start school unable even to hold a crayon or follow instructions, and money alone can’t explain or solve that.

Then comes his fellow Labour MP Graham Allen’s report this January on early intervention for struggling families.

For more libertarian Tories, this involves tricky questions about state interference in home life – while on the left, some question how easy it actually is to play happy families under chronic financial stress. Even ‘squeezed middle’ voters, working long hours in not particularly well paid jobs, regularly tell focus groups they lack the time or money they want to be good parents.

But better parenting is clearly becoming part of the Big Society vision, since stronger families in theory might do more for themselves.

And in a week where Downing Street declared its ambition to boost national happiness, happier children is a reasonable place to start – if ministers can just avoid aggravating too many of their parents.