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    25 March, 2006

    Short Debate

    As I said below, I had the Short debate in the Assembly on Wednesday, and focused on the issue of parenting, using the example of the On Track project in Tylorstown.

    Leighton Andrews: I have agreed that Ann Jones and Lorraine Barrett may have a minute of time each to speak in this debate.

    The subject of the debate is support for parents and learning from best practice. To some, that may seem to be a strange subject to choose, but it is important that we establish that parenting is a political issue. Wherever you go, issues of parenting are raised in our communities by teachers seeking to cope in the classroom with bad or untrained behaviour and by health specialists concerned about the diets of young people and the mounting issues of obesity; they are also raised in general by our citizens who are concerned about anti-social behaviour in their communities. Many of the policies developed by the Assembly address issues linked to parenting, including some of those that I have mentioned. Some of the policies that we have adopted, such as the childcare strategy for Wales, the child poverty strategy, the parenting action plan and the Flying Start programme, address some of those issues. I am afraid that, sometimes, we appear to have strategies and action plans coming out of our ears, so I want to focus today on best practice in providing support for parents accessibly, in a welcoming setting, on a multi-agency basis and at an affordable cost, focusing principally on parenting. I could have spoken about another valuable Assembly-funded exercise, this time in childcare, in Rhondda Cynon Taf, namely the Genesis project, but I want to talk about On Track in Tylorstown, in my constituency.

    On Track is a scheme originally funded by the Home Office and, since 2000, by the National Assembly for Wales. It was originally part of the national crime reduction programme. There are 24 pilot schemes in the UK, two of which are in Wales. It is a research-based project that measures the validity of the early identification of problems and the viability of effective prevention. It works with families with children aged four to 12.

    Specifically in the Rhondda, the scheme offers targeted services for those who need them, within a context of enhanced community support available to all. Therefore, the targeted services are not stigmatised and there is a greater likelihood that they will be taken up. A multi-agency team is based in the community and is capable of offering multiple kinds of intervention. There is also a major focus on community involvement and participation.

    The scheme was rolled out in 2001-02 from the Tylorstown ward in the Rhondda, where it originally began, to Maerdy and Ferndale, encompassing upper Rhondda Fach.

    The age range has subsequently been extended to below four and above 12. The key things to stress about the scheme is that it is community based—there is no need for users of the service to travel or try to find their way between a range of services—it is linked to the education system through the primary school cluster group so that no children are lost through the net, and there is outreach to people’s homes where extra support is needed.

    Tylorstown On Track offers a range of programmes. The pre-school programme addresses the transition from home to school. It helps to identify at an early stage children who may struggle, and it helps to provide support for those who need it in families, or in community or school settings. The parent support and training element uses the Webber-Stratton curriculum, with which the Minister will be familiar, tackling play and safety issues, tackling challenging behaviour issues, family relationships and child development. It is also supported through home visiting. There is a school links programme based around family and school relationships, looking at issues of academic, social and cognitive development, working in class and out of school, and also helping with the transition from primary to secondary school.

    Home visiting is a key element. All families referred to the scheme are visited. Volunteers are recruited to befriend and visit families to offer support and help with parenting skills to encourage and build confidence.

    Specialist interventions are also available through the scheme—counselling advice services, substance misuse services and domestic violence services—based around a parent centre which gives community access to the services from the On Track base. A wide range of statutory and voluntary partners are involved from areas such as health, social services, education, community safety and so on.

    The On Track programme overall provides a range of support—the family worker, the health visitor, the parents as first teachers scheme, the school and community links built around children’s development, the Rhondda Fach parent support group, the parent training programmes, and three parent mutual support groups, which give either specialist advice or simply provide a social opportunity for people to meet and discuss problems that may arise. There is also a fathers group.

    The key thing about On Track is that there is a research base behind it that demonstrates that it is working and that it can be a model for other kinds of integrated children’s services in the community, which are accessible, and, as I said at the beginning, come at a relatively low cost. On Track has delivered over 4,000 interventions to over 2,000 individuals. Sixty per cent of those have been with children, and 40 per cent with adults. Twenty per cent of the interventions have been from the targeted schemes, and 80 per cent from the universal programmes that they run. I genuinely believe that the blend of targeted and universal schemes is important. When we deal with families who have problems, it is too often the case that they have been categorised and stigmatised from the outset. If there is a sense of stigma around, it is less likely that families will take up targeted programmes, because they will be seen as different from the rest of the community. Offering these programmes in the context of wider services to which other families will have access has clearly improved the take-up.

    What are the outcomes of this scheme? In the mid 1990s, social services referrals from the area currently covered by On Track made up roughly 45 per cent of those in the whole Rhondda district. The figure is now 7.5 per cent, and that is the average for the population as a whole. There has been a fall in the number of persistent and occasional offenders seen by the youth offending team in the area. There has been a reduction in referrals to the child and adolescent mental health services in the On Track age range. Perhaps most striking of all is the fact that the referrals to the pupil review panel for the secondary school area of Ferndale Community School have reduced from 88 in 2001 to eight in 2004-05. It is perhaps no surprise that Ferndale Community School is very much committed to the On Track scheme.

    There has also been external endorsement of On Track. There has been a Sheffield university national evaluation of the On Track programme, and there has been a very significant examination of the work done by the scheme across the UK, but the scheme in Tylorstown has been singled out for explicit recognition of the work that it has been undertaking. People from that project have been invited to conferences to explain precisely what the benefits have been. There has been a specific evaluation of the Rhondda scheme in Tylorstown by a team at Cardiff University. There is buy-in and support from the schools in the Rhondda Fach, and there has also been policy endorsement from the local authority. Eighteen community school cluster workers have been appointed, and there are social services intervention co-ordinators in each district working with the scheme.

    The local authority has been supporting the roll-out of On Track by developing field social workers who can refer quickly to it. Therefore, there has been significant integration of local authority services as a result of the scheme. As my colleagues, Ann Jones and Huw Lewis, witnessed when they visited the scheme recently, there is significant buy-in from parents. We heard parents saying that these schemes had made a significant difference to their lives, to the way that they interacted with their children, and to the way in which they contributed to the development of their children. Those are important outcomes of a project that has now been running for a number of years.

    The Minister works in a department where ‘evidence-based’ is one of the most popular phrases used. I think that we have evidence of a scheme of integrated children’s centres that works and of something that we should be looking to build on and learn from for the development of similar interventions in the future. I also said that it was cost effective. The scheme, depending on the full range of services that it has, has cost between £300,000 and £400,000 for the school cluster area. With possibly another two or three schemes, you could cover the whole of my constituency, for example, and with two or three more, you would cover the whole of the county borough. This is an effective and measurable scheme that is delivering good results, and I think that that in itself is to be commended.

    The scheme is now to be mainstreamed, and I would like to comment on mainstreaming because I think that we should mainstream success. I worry that the concept of mainstreaming sometimes means that service providers say that they are taking on board all of the lessons that have been learned while not demonstrating in practice, on the ground, that their delivery of services is changing in a meaningful way. Sometimes, the successful projects can be absorbed into the mainstream without really demonstrating any real change in the delivery of services. When we see schemes such as this being mainstreamed, it is important that they remain accessible to the community, remain present in the community, remain actively engaged with the community, and that members of the community are really involved by not only participating in receiving the services, but engaging in the planning of those services and having some direct say in how they are shaped and delivered.

    In mainstreaming this scheme, the Welsh Assembly Government will seek to ensure that when it recommends policy developments in this area, the lessons of On Track are learned and are properly shared across all of the services that may be engaged in developing this kind of working with children and parents.

    Ann Jones: I thank Leighton for choosing the topic of supporting parents and, in doing so, highlighting the excellent On Track in Tylorstown scheme, which, as Leighton mentioned, I have been along to see. By choosing this subject for the short debate, he has opened up the excellent work in that valley so that we can all learn from it, and there are some lessons for us all to learn regarding how we take this forward. I was delighted to accompany you on that visit and to hear the testimony of those who are involved with the scheme. We heard the testimony of those who are users and of those who are former users but who are now support officers and workers within that community. This project is truly at the heart of the community and is run by the community for the community. We have to extend it across Wales.

    You are right to say that we need to be careful when mainstreaming that we maintain the high standards that On Track has developed with the community. I, like you, would want the Welsh Assembly Government to consider rolling this project out across Wales. It is a model for the future, for parents and those young children who will become parents in the future. I want to thank you, Leighton, and those who work with On Track for the way in which they accepted me into that community and told me quite openly and frankly about their problems and how they, as a community, overcame them together. I think that it is an excellent project, and you are lucky to have it within your constituency. I, like you, would like to see it rolled out across Wales.

    Lorraine Barrett: Parents in St Mellons in my constituency have benefited enormously from schemes such as Sure Start, which has improved their parenting skills, and have gained qualifications with the support of a community crèche. This is excellent best practice. Some of those parents are lone parents and are doing a great job, despite having been demonised by John Redwood some 10 years ago—they still remember that. I wonder how he feels now that he has left his wife. Will he apologise to the lone parents in St Mellons for not understanding that people become lone parents for all sorts of reasons, which are sometimes beyond their control, such as being deserted by their partners? The lone parents of St Mellons have moved on and up since those dark days when the Vulcan descended on them.

    The Deputy Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning (Christine Chapman): I thank Leighton Andrews for taking the opportunity today to turn the spotlight on such an important area of policy, namely support for parents. I also thank him for illustrating this by mentioning the excellent work that is going on as part of the On Track scheme in Tylorstown. As you said, Leighton, it is a research project with the primary aim of preventing crime and anti-social behaviour by delivering services to children aged between four and 12 who are considered to be at risk of becoming offenders later in life.

    As you may know, there are two On Track projects in Wales; one is in Tylorstown in your constituency, and the other is in Caerau outside Maesteg. They operate in areas where crime levels are higher than normal and where substance misuse is a real problem. High unemployment rates, low income, poor housing and a high proportion of people with long-term limiting illness and poor mental health contribute to poor parent-child relationships and family conflicts, which often result in children not attending school or not achieving their potential when they do. As you have reminded us, Leighton, the On Track teams are made up of a range of professionals, including health visitors, teachers and family counsellors, who offer support to families and children. The help offered includes parenting skills classes, support networks for both mothers and fathers, and teaching confidence-building skills to children. As you said, the results have been remarkable. The number of referrals to social services has reduced dramatically, and children are coping far better with the transition from primary school to secondary school.

    The On Track programme is now in its sixth year. It has been heavily evaluated from the start, and this will continue until the first children involved in the project are aged between 14 and 21. The final report is planned for 2010. Evidence from the first published evaluation shows that setting up complex multi-agency lead programmes such as On Track, which aim to bring about changes in practice, can take time. However, early indications show that the On Track approach is effective. It has proved to work so well in Tylorstown and Caerau that the model is now being mainstreamed into children services by Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council and Bridgend County Borough Council. I am pleased, Ann, that you had the opportunity to visit the On Track programme in Tylorstown and that you recognise the good work that is going on. There are implications for all parts of Wales.

    The Welsh Assembly Government has invested almost £3 million in these projects, which are intended to provide a test bed that could usefully inform future policy development. Two conferences have been held, in July 2003 and September 2005, where the two Welsh On Track teams disseminated to delegates from all over Wales the structures and interventions that they use to achieve multi-agency preventative child and family work involving the whole community. These events proved successful and generated a great deal of interest in the On Track multi-agency approach.

    The Welsh Assembly Government is already committed to a wider implementation of many aspects of services provided under On Track. For example, in December 2005 we published our parenting action plan, providing a basis for our work on parenting until March 2008. We all know that parenting is a big job. The bond between children and their mothers, fathers and carers is the most significant influence on a child’s life. All parents need support and encouragement in undertaking this role. I was grateful to Lorraine Barrett for reminding us of the good work that has been done in St Mellons despite the earlier bad media. Thank you, Lorraine, for reminding us of that in St Mellons.

    The action plan also aims to raise the profile of parenting among policy makers and service providers, and to further the development of policies and services that support mothers, fathers and carers. The overall aim is to ensure that parents get the advice and support that they need and know where to go for help when they need it. A key commitment in the action plan concerned extra money for parent services. Significant additional funding will be available to local children and young people’s partnerships under Cymorth in 2006-07 and 2007-08. Guidance to partnerships made it clear that we expect some of this additional funding to go on increased support for parents. I am pleased to report that the partnerships have allocated £15.6 million to family support in their plans for 2006-07, funding over 250 individual projects across Wales to provide families with support that will foster positive relationships between parents and children.

    Leighton has also mentioned the evidence base that the Welsh Assembly Government relies upon. The parenting action plan particularly seeks to encourage the uptake of evidence-based parenting programmes that have a proven track record and have been thoroughly evaluated. For example, the Incredible Years programme, researched and provided in Wales by the University of Wales, Bangor, is the kind of evidence-based programme that we would like to see taken up across Wales. In 2006-07, the Welsh Assembly Government will be funding Incredible Years Wales to train up to 120 leaders in six locations across Wales. To help inform decisions about investment in future years, locally and nationally, the Welsh Assembly Government will commission a review of evidence-based parenting programmes in Wales.

    The action plan also commits the Welsh Assembly Government to setting up a new bilingual helpline for parents, planned to be operational from 1 April 2007. This will provide parents with up-to-date information and advice about what is available in their local area. It will also be able to refer them on to other local sources of help and support.

    In addition, being aware that all parents value and need good quality, accessible sources of information, we have started working on a series of booklets for parents. Some examples of this include ‘From Breakfast to Bedtime’, which gives tips to parents of under-fives on handling everyday situations, and ‘Over the Top Behaviour in the Under 10s’, which is aimed at parents of children aged 5 to 10 and seeks to help them to manage challenging behaviour and distinguish between normal childhood behaviour and where there are more serious causes for concern. During 2006-07, we will be working with Children are Unbeatable! to develop a further booklet on alternatives to physical discipline which we hope will be ready for distribution to new parents from 2007.

    We are also seeking to encourage the development of local parent networks. These already exist in some areas, providing support for parents and enabling them to have a bigger say in what services are available and how they are organised. We know that there is a lot of interest from the children and young people’s partnerships in setting up these networks.

    We are also undertaking a piece of work on grandparenting, being aware of the important role that grandparents and other family members play in supporting parents and in raising children and young people. A small working group is currently helping to develop policy in this area, in line with our older people strategy and the parenting action plan.

    The Welsh Assembly Government is also committed to increasing parental involvement in schools. This goes far beyond involving parents in the formal education process, although that remains important. The community-focused schools initiative and the development of integrated centres will provide opportunities for much closer working with families, such as family support, early years education, play, childcare, health services and community training. To date, 23 integrated centres, or satellite facilities, have opened, with an additional 14 centres scheduled to open in the next six months, and a further three are planned by the end of March 2007. One of the great advantages of having an action plan is that we can bring together, in one document, existing initiatives and new developments and check their progress. This action plan is a living document; it is about continually pushing forward our commitment to supporting mothers, fathers and carers with supporting children in Wales. Again, that is positive commitment from the Welsh Assembly Government.

    Finally, Jane Davidson, as you know, launched Flying Start, a programme aimed at our youngest children in the most needy areas of Wales. Crucially, this programme will provide the foundation for the foundation phase. Together, Flying Start and the foundation phase will provide a continuum of provision for children until the age of seven. Flying Start will also provide free part-time care of high quality for two-year-olds as part of an integrated service in each target community. These very powerful, early interventions are important so that we can give children as much opportunity as possible as they go through life.

    I know that a number of schools are well on their way to being part of these initiatives and are beginning to develop in the direction in which we want them to travel. I welcome the huge amount of progress that is happening in communities. Leighton mentioned Ferndale—an area that I know very well—and it is about schools and the community taking pride in their achievements and being able to obtain public recognition within the community. I thank Leighton for using this good opportunity to talk about a very important policy area, and I also thank Ann Jones and Lorraine Barrett.

    Rhondda TV
    The Labour Party

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