‘I stand for a Britain that supports as first class citizens not just some children and some families but supports all children and all families.’ UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s commitment in his conference speech to helping all families sounds liberal and caring. But state intervention in cases of desperate hardship or vulnerability has expanded into an increasingly hands-on approach to family life that undermines parents and important personal freedoms.
The publication in June 2007 of the Care Matters: Time for Change White Paper by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has drawn attention to the British state’s poor record with regards children in the care system. Children who have lived in care have poorer educational performance and employment prospects than children living in families, and a stronger likelihood that they’ll go on to get a criminal record or sleep rough.
Things have been improving, though. The proportion of children in care in the UK has reduced from around 7.5 per 1,000 (ie, 100,000 children) in the 1970s, to around 5.5 per 1,000 (or 70,000 children) today. But even this is to overestimate the numbers who spend prolonged periods in care. There has also been a shift from a reliance on residential provision (or children’s homes) to foster care and kinship arrangements, and increasing success in keeping children with their families. So, awful as it can be, the care experience is not as bad as it once was.
But the care system is just one part of the much larger children’s social care system. While the focus on the dire prospects of the 8,000 young people leaving the care system each year is understandable, it leaves unexamined the broader implications of the so-called ‘corporate parenting’ role assumed by the state. The wider Every Child Matters agenda (which informs Care Matters) is ostensibly the government’s response to the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié at the hands of her carers (her aunt and her aunt’s partner) in 2000. But the reform agenda has remarkably little to say about how to tackle child abuse.
Instead, the government has turned a rare child tragedy into a far-reaching agenda for change in the provision of children’s services as a whole. There was an explosion of child protection inquiries in the 1970s, sometimes resulting in legislative and structural change. But never before has a government’s response to a child’s death been so sweeping in its implications for all children and families. The new agenda is about prevention, early intervention and safeguarding – in other words, protecting children from innumerable risks to their well-being, not just (or even predominantly) abuse or neglect.
Indeed it is questionable whether Every Child Matters is about protecting children at all but rather about protecting society from children, or at least from the supposedly faulty child-rearing practices of their parents. Alternatively, this agenda might be understood as a redefining of child protection and traditional categories of ‘abuse’ and expanding them to mean something else. A number of commentators have argued that the Climbié case was no more than a convenient hook on which to hang initiatives around social exclusion and anti-social behaviour. Though this seems to be the case, it doesn’t explain how these new initiatives and policies could have found such purchase and gained such wide support.
The focus on ‘vulnerable children’ has a resonance in our anxious and child-obsessed times. The flip-side is that parents and parenting are also high on the political agenda. Parenting is now deemed too important by the political elite to be left to parents alone. The Conservatives launched an ‘inquiry into childhood’ in March, its own response to the now infamous UNICEF report that slated the UK’s record on children’s well-being. Gordon Brown, seeking a line in the sand, responded to Tory proposals around incentivising marriage and the traditional family by pledging to ‘support’ all families.
The big new idea is that government should intervene not only at the margins but across the board in the name of the child, giving ‘practical, sustained help, whenever and wherever families need it’ as Brown puts it. Madeleine Bunting, in the Guardian, writes approvingly: ‘Put children’s wellbeing first and it reframes the debate.’ Because ‘family structure makes little difference to children’s outcomes’ this is the only ‘defensible reason’ for the state’s intervening ‘in the private decisions of a couple’, she says. Well, that’s all right then.
The state doesn’t need any encouragement to intervene in family life. In guidance issued in 2006, the DfES urged local authorities to develop Parenting Support Strategies. In a letter accompanying the publication of Every Parent Matters in March this year, the secretary of state, Alan Johnson, promised that parenting would no longer be a ‘no-go area for government’. This was followed by the launch of the government’s Parenting Academy in April. The ambitions of the corporate parent have expanded from SureStart Centres working only in the most deprived communities to the plan for 3,500 Children’s Centres by 2010 to cater to the needs of every parent in ‘every community’. And as if all of this isn’t enough, Harriet Harman has complained that, unlike teachers, doctors and nurses, parents don’t have the professional structures through which to lobby government or to play their part in scrutinising legislation. There should be ‘family impact statements’, she says, whenever a new piece of legislation is proposed.
But for all this parenting talk, in reality parents themselves are increasingly marginalised. The qualities of parenting are a matter for public deliberation, contingent on policy goals and discussed in purely instrumental terms. The parent typically features as a passive recipient of ‘support’ or as a ‘partner’ alongside all the other agencies involved with their children. Indeed, the political divide is more apparent than real in this regard. Cameron speaks for the political class as a whole when he describes parents who allow their children to eat too much as ‘grossly selfish and irresponsible’. After all, ‘being a good parent isn’t just a benefit to your child but to the whole of society’.
Not only are parents being told in no uncertain terms that they are unable to play the kind of role that the government expects of them in their children’s lives. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish ‘children in need’ from ‘children’ anymore. Much of the rhetorical force of Every Child Matters emanates from wider concerns and anxieties about the welfare of the nation’s children. But the notion that children are now subject to innumerable risks in greater numbers, and with greater consequence than ever before can only have a corrosive effect on child-rearing.
The relentless discourse of despair about children and childhood needs to be challenged. There are exceptions when society, one way or another, must intervene to protect or care for a child. But these instances are rare and must be treated as such. Similarly, though the care population deserves much better, the critics are neglecting to interrogate the implications of other much more pervasive interventions in family life. It is important that parents reclaim their autonomy from the interventions of the state, and that professionals too begin to redraw the line.
The case has to be made for defending the sovereignty of parents over their own children, to raise them as they see fit and without official intrusion – otherwise parents are destined to become just another partner in the business of rearing their own children.
This article is an edited version of a presentation given to the IoI Parents Forum.