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Creating the super-nanny state

Mark Easton
Home editor
@BBCMarkEastonon Twitter

image copyrightReuters

Whenever there is some incident of juvenile delinquency or youth crime you will hear the same refrain: "Well, I blame the parents."

And the evidence is that the parents are indeed likely to have played a significant part in the anti-social behaviour of their offspring.

So should the state intervene in the upbringing of the nation's children, offering intensive support and advice to all parents? Should it play the role of surrogate nanny?

At the moment, parents who cannot control their kids may end up being ordered to take classes in good parenting by the courts. But the links with the criminal justice system mean that parenting classes have a stigma attached to them.

Attendance is often poor, and those that do go represent a fraction of families who could benefit from help and advice. The support is only available after the damage has been done.

About 10 years ago, I reported on a class arranged for the parents of truants. Even though many of those due to attend had been ordered to go by a court, almost no-one turned up. I remember a huge plate of doughnuts sitting uneaten on a table.

However, one mum was there - furious that the others hadn't bothered. She explained to me that she had resented the mandatory classes at first, but how ultimately the classes had changed her life. Her children, aged about 11 and nine, told me they had been given a new mum.

So the government wants to make attending parenting classes a normal part of being a good parent - something that every new mum or dad does. All parents could benefit from some good advice, it is argued, and only by making support a mainstream part of starting a family can those who need help most be encouraged to participate.

image copyrightGMP
image captionBlame the parents?

To create that cultural change, they want to build the capacity for a thriving commercial market in parenting advice. If pilot schemes prove successful, free vouchers worth £100 will be given to all parents of children under five in England and Wales - available from Boots on the High Street. The idea is that, once evaluated providers are up and running, the state can pull back from universal vouchers and target state help on those with specific problems.

There is another side to this initiative too. From an expectant mother's first scan in an NHS hospital at about 12 weeks, future parents will get texts and emails linking to information films and advice directly relating to the development of their child at that point.

From conception to the first three months of life, I am told, there will more than 100 separate video or advice notifications for parents. This is an intensive programme based on strong evidence that helping parents form strong attachments to their children in the very early days and supporting them through the stresses and strains of family life can significantly improve the life chances of children.

Experts at the National Antisocial Behaviour Clinic based at London's Maudsley Hospital draw a direct line between poor parenting and a range of social problems including educational under-achievement, criminality and drug misuse.

image copyrightPA
image captionRight... what now?

But they also suggest that support works. A 10-year clinical trial into the Incredible Years parenting scheme has begun to show significantly improved outcomes for those youngsters whose parents had taken part.

Ministers are very anxious to avoid the accusation that the good parenting advice amounts to the nanny state. The prime minister has described it instead as "the sensible state".

"It's ludicrous that we should expect people to train for hours to drive a car or use a computer, but when it comes to looking after a baby we tell people to just get on with it. And to those who say that government should forget about parenting and families and focus on the big, gritty issues, I'd say these are the big, gritty issues."

Changing social norms is never quick and is never easy - ministers talk about trying to initiate a generational shift in attitudes. There are clear benefits in improving the nation's parenting skills. The question is whether the state has a role as super-nanny.