What was the Families Programme?
The Families Programme was a strategic change programme that aimed to redesign the way public sector support services for families were delivered in Liverpool. Although introduced into a context of severe funding cuts (a 52 per cent reduction in overall council funding between 2011 and 2017), the authority decided to use the enforced changes to try to bring about cultural transformation through the development of an integrated, early intervention and prevention framework. This aimed to provide earlier support to families when needs were identified, using a whole family approach in recognition of the fact that children need to be understood in the contexts of their families and environments. Like most large-scale programmes, the Families Programme was not a linear set of interventions. It brought together a range of existing and new initiatives to cover the full spectrum of child and family need with new services only introduced where a gap was identified that could not be filled by existing services. Its aim was for agencies to work more effectively with existing partners and stakeholders and build on what was already known to work well.
The overarching objective of the research which was commissioned by the local authority was to measure the effectiveness of the programme and its impact on families and practitioners. It was founded on the need to offer both contextual specificity at the micro level in the form of case studies of individuals and a recognition of the complexity of the macro level. The research involved semi-structured individual and group interviews with 83 professionals and practitioners (including school staff) involved in the programme and in-depth case studies of nine families. The case studies were based on qualitative longitudinal tracking of children, young people’s and families’ journeys over an 18-month period during 2014 and 2015. Time was spent building relationships with the parents and carers by shadowing frontline staff when they visited families so that families got to know the researchers before they consented to undertake any interviews. All parents and carers participated in the research, but some children were too young to participate and a number of young people chose not to take part. Data were analysed using thematic analysis (Boyatzis, 1998) and theory of change models developed to evaluate the programmes.
It was important to the funder that the research assessed the programme’s impact both to inform its further development and to support subsequent applications for funding. Thus, the research had to assess the extent to which the kinds of ‘hard’ measures formulated and required by policy makers were addressed. In the case studies of families, these included re-engaging young people in education and improving their attendance and/or attainment at school (evident in 6 of the 9 cases); preventing child protection plans from put in place or de-escalating those that already were (5 cases); children returning home from care or not being taken into care (4); and parents or carers moving into employment or education (4). ‘Softer’ outcomes reported by parents, carers, children and young people included increased aspirations (8 cases) and improved personal and social skills (7). Recognising that taking such a positivist approach to the complexity of families’ lives would leave the evaluation open to the same criticism that followed the national Troubled Families Programme’s claims to have ‘turned around’ families, it was important to use the detailed, transactional case studies of families as a means of problematising the outcome data reported above.
Three three key factors were identified as affecting these impacts. They were:
- the effectiveness of collaboration among agencies and services;
- the mediating role played by the programme between families and schools;
- the extent to which relationships were built with families so that they were involved in decisions made about their future.