During a major speech on the family on Monday (11 Jan), Mr Cameron announced proposals for the state-funded support sessions, and described strong families as the ‘best anti-poverty measure ever invented’.
The scheme, part of the Government’s Life Chances Strategy, is a rehash of the £5m 2012 Can Parent pilot, which faced criticism after just 2,936, or 5 per cent, of eligible parents took part.
It was launched by the Prime Minister in three underprivileged areas after the 2011 riots, but the new proposals are being couched in more inclusive language. In the speech, he envisaged the scheme having similar status to National Childbirth Trust classes, which are widely perceived as having more privileged users.
Mr Cameron’s stated ambition is to make such classes, which he claims will teach ‘good play, communication, behavior, discipline’, the norm for families of all levels of privilege.
Highlighting the ‘pivotal’ role the early years of a child’s life play in improving its life chances, he said ‘we must think much more radically about improving family life and the early years'.
Pamela Park, a spokesman for advice charity Family Lives, said the organisation, which was previously part of the pilot, hoped to be involved again.
She said, ‘We firmly believe that all parents should be able to access high quality parenting support, so we hope to be involved in the initiative.
‘We welcome the prime minister’s commitment to family relationships. There is such a strong evidence base that parenting classes are both effective at improving children’s outcomes, but also valued by parents that attend, that we do have confidence that we can change the culture in Britain so it becomes normal to attend a parenting class.’
The charity reported 94 per cent of users were satisfied and would recommend the classes to a friend, with 84 per cent feeling more confident as a parent.
It also said the trial significantly reduced the stigma among users that classes were only for parents with ‘problems bringing up their children’.
However there were lessons to be learnt, said Ms Park, such as the need to work with local partners to build on the strengths of those organisations, and cutting bureaucracy to improve access.
'Culture change takes time – any initiative must be given proper time before being judged,’ she added.
The pilot - which entailed parents being given £100 vouchers to spend on classes - eventually cost £1,192 per parent.
The Montessori Schools Association also pulled out of the scheme citing low take-up and bureaucracy.
Imelda Redmond, chief executive of 4Children, welcomed the prospect of such support becoming mainstream.
But she remarked that improving working hours and family finances are key if such measures are to succeed.
She added, ‘However, parenting classes and relationship support will not, by themselves, radically change the life chances of children living in poverty.
‘Families are telling us that despite their best intentions, long working hours and financial pressures are having a detrimental impact on family relationships. Helping families to achieve a better work-life balance, and financial security, will also need to be addressed if the Prime Minister’s strategy is to work.’
Barnardo’s were also involved in the pilot and want to see more on how the renewed push for classes will work.
Javed Khan, the charity’s chief executive, said, ‘Being a parent is one of the toughest jobs going, and some parents do need a bit of help to develop the skills they need. We see the difference our own parenting classes are making. We look forward to greater detail on David Cameron’s proposals.’
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, also welcomed the proposed investment but warned against over-emphasising ‘discipline and control’ over ‘building and supporting positive relationships between parent and child’.
He added, ‘It’s also vital that the scheme receives sufficient funding to ensure that take-up is high, that the classes reach families who feel they need additional support, and critically, that the quality of the classes is such that they do in fact provide a useful service to the parents that use them.’
Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, called instead for a ‘credible plan’ for tackling poverty such as dealing with low pay and cuts to work incentives.
She said, ‘Of course parenting is difficult - and the most important job there is - but it is a whole lot harder to give your children good chances in life if you’re on poverty pay and clobbered by sky-high housing and childcare costs.
‘Research evidence shows overwhelmingly that low family incomes damage children’s outcomes yet the Government is planning to cut universal credit for low-paid working parents – in much the same way as it wanted to cut tax credits for hard-up working families.
‘And unless the Welfare Reform and Work Bill is amended, the UK won’t even have a target for reducing income poverty. Parents do need support but any credible plan to improve children’s life chances must ensure families have a decent income.”
Lucy Powell MP, (pictured), Labour's shadow education secretary, described Mr Cameron’s record of meeting his promises to families as ‘woeful’.
Labour claims that freedom of information requests have revealed there are 763 fewer designated children's centres since 2010.
Ms Powell said, ‘In opposition he claimed he wanted to deliver “the most family friendly government ever” but the actions of his government - the closure of hundreds of Sure Start children's centres, huge cuts to family support services, tax credit and welfare changes for example - have left many, many more families in crisis.
‘Good parenting programmes alongside meaningful early intervention are not only critical but also benefit society and create investment for the economy. However, what we've seen from five years of the Tories is a far cry from good family policy.’
Mr Cameron said he was moving to ‘scale up’ the Troubled Families programme but added, ‘In the end though, getting parenting and the early years right isn’t just about the hardest-to-reach families, frankly it’s about everyone. We all have to work at it.’
He continued, ‘Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented. They are a welfare, education and counselling system all wrapped up into one.
‘Children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to experience poverty as those whose families stay together. That’s why strengthening families is at the heart of our agenda.’
He said the Government had been addressing support for the first weeks of a child’s life, and added, ‘What about later on, when it comes to good play, communication, behaviour, discipline? We all need more help with this – because the most important job we’ll ever have.
‘So I believe we now need to think about how to make it normal – even aspirational to attend parenting classes. We should encourage the growth of high-quality courses that help with all aspects of becoming a great mum or a great dad.
‘And we need to take steps to encourage all new parents to build a strong network, just as brilliant organisations like Family Action or NCT [National Childbirth Trust] already do for some parents.
‘So I can announce today that our Life Chances Strategy will include a plan for significantly expanding parenting provision.
‘It will examine the possibility of introducing a voucher scheme for parenting classes and recommend the best way to incentivise parents to take them up.’