Speech given by Tim Loughton to the International Association of Attachment (IASA) , held in St John’s College Cambridge, August 31, 2010
Given that my academic background is in Mesopotamian Archaeology, I’m not going to attempt a lecture on attachment theory or the Dynamic Maturational Model. These are areas, I strongly suspect, best left to the true experts like Dr Pat Crittenden (then chairman of IASA).
But I would like to continue along one of the broad themes of this conference by concentrating on the importance of strong relationships, and specifically the nature of the relationship between a government and its citizens:
- Looking, if I may, at the extent to which politicians can, and indeed should, involve themselves in the day to day life of children and parents.
- At the capacity and limitations of paternalistic government and institutions to influence families.
- And, most importantly, the extent to which Government can help parents to form the very strongest possible attachments with their children.
These are all questions at the very heart of the Coalition plans for a radical reappraisal of the way the state interacts with families.
A relationship that has, in my opinion, become unbalanced over the last 40 or so years as successive Governments have attempted to supplant - rather than support parents to achieve that strong attachment, which we all agree provides the very best foundations in life for young people.
Dr Crittenden, as you know, has argued before that this change happened almost organically - in compensation for what has typically been seen as the breakdown of traditional family structures.
In her words: “Today’s parents are learning to raise their children differently than previous generations….. With the rise of singleton children, nuclear families and single parent families. The gap being filled by the Government and professionals through both restrictive child protection legislation and also supportive services.”
There has, I think, been growing unease about this social change, which goes far beyond a lack of income and often describes people who live in highly concentrated communities, experiencing multiple and complex challenges that serve to lock them and their children into a cycle of under-achievement, poverty and unhappiness.
The outward indicators of this apparent social malaise are well documented and known to us all. Whilst much hard work has been done and some important progress made, the UK still has some of the highest levels of alcohol and drug use amongst its young people in the world. We have the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, and more than 1million of our children suffer from some kind of mental health disorder.
In short, family life has become a minefield at a time when technological and economic advances should have been making it easier. And it would be easy to caricature ourselves as a country where a small minority of parents don’t give a monkey’s about any attachment to their children - because they know a paternalistic care system will be there to try and pick up the pieces if it all goes wrong.
Whilst a majority of parents are doing an incredibly good job of bringing up their children, but are still scared stiff that they might receive a knock on the door from the obesity police if their child is caught eating a bag of crisps.
The new Coalition Government believes there is a need for a root and branch re-evaluation of that relationship between state and family – hence the announcement earlier this year of the setting up of the Childhood and Families Taskforce, chaired by the Prime Minister. At the very essence of which, is the Coalition determination to treat people differently. To support parents rather than to take over their responsibilities. And to look on Government’s role as one of providing the tools for parents to make better attachments to their children.
Today – I’d like to investigate a few specific areas where we believe we can do that with the greatest impact.
[STRESS IN CHILDHOOD]
Firstly, I want to look at an issue I have already touched on briefly. Stress in childhood.
I don’t believe it is an exaggeration – or rose tinted nostalgia – to say life is far tougher for children now than it was when I was growing up. Young people are increasingly portrayed as a threat, rather than as an asset to our future. And the pressures on growing up have become extraordinary. With childhood distorted and shortened by the pressures of commercialisation and the insidious sexualisation of young people through certain sections of media.
Couple that with greater societal breakdown, the increased pace of life, pressure to achieve in schools and economic pressures, and it is no wonder our children are more stressed now than ever before.
From both a political, and a psychological point of view, that has grave ramifications for any society. We may expect children to be happy go lucky, but in fact their lives are rocked by an anxiety that your research - and the work of your colleagues – is now helping us understand better than ever before.
For example, we know that the increasing commercialisation of our children – who can be vulnerable to ‘grooming’ by professional ‘marketeers’ as ‘super consumers’ for the future – is a cause of considerable stress in young lives. The ‘you can’t be cool without these trainers’ syndrome, that all of us with teenage children know so well.
A symptom, perhaps, of what the Prime Minister has described as the modern obsession of ‘treating children like adults, and adults like children’.
For this reason, commercialisation is one of the key issues we will be considering over the coming months, drawing on previous reviews including Dr Tanya Byron’s work on internet safety, and Professor Buckingham’s review of commercialisation.
But there is another side to the coin, and that is what might be seen as commercialisation by children themselves, as celebrity and fame become ever more important criteria for success in modern society.
I’ve mentioned before that some commentators have portrayed reality TV as the modern equivalent of a Victorian Freak Show. The psychiatrist Glen Wilson has gone on record to say that the ‘deficiencies and shortcomings’ of contestants on some shows are ‘as important as the talent’. Commentating that we ‘enjoy the stress we are putting these people under.’
You could, of course, debate almost ad nauseam the rights and wrongs of modern TV. It’s certainly not up to Government to tell people what to watch.
My point is simply that society is conditioning us, and particularly impressionable youngsters, to like that sort of thing. And that has raised profound questions over how young people choose to involve themselves in the media and their experiences within it.
Shows like ‘Boys and Girls Alone’ – which aired on Channel 4 last year – sparked fierce debate across the country after it engineered a ‘Lord of the Flies’ type scenario. With the removal and separation of those children from their families serving as a useful reminder of the importance of heeding basic child psychology principles, including attachment theory, when involving young people in TV programming.
And it did, I think, also highlight the growing need to look again at our Child Performance laws, which date back to the 1960s and now seem ready for review. And that is something I will be undertaking in the Autumn, together with a look at the whole area of rather antiquated child employment laws, which were highlighted earlier this year in Sarah Thane’s report on child performance regulations.
[ATTACHMENT IN THE HOME]
The major cause of stress for children remains, however, firmly within the four walls of the family home. Many of you will, I’m sure, remember the work of anthropologist Mark Finn, who spent more than a decade measuring the cortisol levels of children in the Caribbean.
As this conference has been exploring, persistently high levels of stress can be especially damaging for children from the very youngest age, and have been linked with any number of conditions ranging from ME to asthma and – of course – a range of long term mental health issues.
But Mr Finn’s work was surprising in as much as it suggested social ills such as poverty and competition in school don’t stress children as much as we might think. What really affected the children he measured over those years were issues in the home. Time and time again, when a family experienced difficulties – like a father leaving or parents having a fight – cortisol levels in children rose, staying high and causing illness days after.
Most worryingly, he found that no matter how often this kind of disruption in family life occurred, the children reacted just as strongly each time.
Unlike adults, who adapt to a repeated stressful situation, children always react as if they were experiencing it for the first time. It follows therefore that if we – as a society – don’t tackle the causes of that stress appropriately, which are very often directly linked to attachment, the damage will be far reaching.
As Mark Finn showed, it is in the home that happy, healthy childhoods are formed from the very first days of our lives.
And it is for that reason that we need to provide support at the earliest possible opportunity to parents, rather than simply deal with the consequences of a breakdown in attachment between a mother or father and their child later down the line – when mental and physical problems may well already have taken hold.
In the UK alone, mental ill health is estimated to cost some £110 billion a year. How much easier, and more economic, it would be to pursue active early intervention from pregnancy rather than picking up the pieces when the damage is already done.
This is an area where the Coalition is determined to make genuine progress as part of its new relationship with the citizen - and it’s one of the reasons why we committed so early to increase health spending over the next review period and to ring fence revenue spend on Sure Start this year.
As part of which, we have already announced that we’ll be recruiting an extra 4,200 Sure Start health visitors. Giving local communities the chance to help the most vulnerable parents to make the right decisions from the very first days and months after childbirth.
And potentially helping to ensure that the negative experiences those same parents might have formed from their own attachments during childhood, are not repeated through the generations.
In addition, we’ve asked Labour MP Graham Allen to lead cross party work on early intervention more generally – so that it becomes designed into Government policy, rather than bolted on subsequently.
Specifically, Graham’s group will look at how we can move away from just dealing with the consequences of early adversity, which are so strongly implicated in alcohol and drug use, mental health problems and youth knife and gun crime. And move instead towards a more effective intervention and prevention strategy that helps parents get attachment right from the antenatal, post natal and infant stages.
The Coalition expects that work to have far reaching benefits for many local communities in the years ahead. And it is a sentiment that is shared, I’m sure, by Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, who earlier this month described high quality childcare and support for families as of ‘equal importance’ in the fight against youth crime as traditional police work.
At the heart of all of this work though, lies a fundamental question around fate – and whether we believe that you can predict a child’s destiny from the womb. Previous administrations have strongly suggested that you can from their focus on late intervention and enforcement, rather than prevention. But I’d be interested to hear your own views on this.
For instance, there was an article in the New Scientist recently that suggested that an only child does not suffer from any comparative disadvantage to his or her peers who have siblings. Directly contradicting previous assumptions that it can hamper social development. This divergence of scientific opinion around families’ circumstances and life chances in this – and indeed many other areas - highlights the need to get Government policy right.
Can we second guess a child’s destiny from their background? When is early intervention actually too late, when is prevention at its most effective? And where is it inappropriate or ineffective for Government to meddle in family life. These are the kind of questions we really would value your opinions on over the next few months and years as Coalition policy continues to develop.
[CHILDREN IN CARE]
And they’re the kind of questions that can – potentially at least – have a huge impact on areas that are currently failing far too many young people. Particularly the most vulnerable such as children in care who do – in fact – appear to face a destiny of underachievement and mental health problems at the moment, due to very well documented systemic failures that hamper their ability to form close attachments.
We know, for example, that some 45 per cent of children in care suffer from a mental health disorder – a figure that rises to a shocking 72 per cent of those in residential care. Whilst only around 1 in 5 looked after children achieve five or more good GCSEs, as compared to a national average of 70 per cent.
Quite clearly this kind of failure is – to put it bluntly – a false economy. And we will be concentrating on improving outcomes for children in care as a priority issue over the coming months.
Indeed the Coalition has, as you know, already asked Professor Eileen Munro to look at how we can better support social workers to make the strongest possible judgments in the best interests of those children - and has also asked her to look at how we can free up social workers so they can target the right children at the right time.
Opinion is divided over whether there are too many children in care, or too few. But the real question we should be asking is whether the right children are in care.
Undoubtedly, there are some who shouldn’t be there who are, whilst there are those who should be, but aren’t. As is suggested in the fact that despite all the initiatives, guidance, legislation and red tape that’s been introduced since the tragic death of Victoria Climbie some ten years ago, we still seem little closer to protecting our most vulnerable children. With shocking NSPCC figures from 2008 estimating one to two children die at the hands of their parents every week in the UK.
Clearly, placing a child in care is a hugely complicated value judgement for social workers to make, and clearly the vast majority of children in care are safer, but at the moment social workers are simply not always given the time they need to make those crucial decisions because they have been placed under huge workload pressures.
I’ve spoken to many over the last few years, and they are consistently worried that the job they specifically signed up and trained hard for – to help families make better lives for themselves – has been undermined by reams of paperwork, box ticking and red tape.
A survey by the union UNISON estimated some 80 per cent of their time is now spent in front of the computer screen, rather than out with families. Hence the reason why we have switched off ContactPoint, which was so symptomatic of a system that treats the collection and computerisation of data almost as an end in itself even when it then impedes the time and capacity of the professionals to interpret and act on that data and make the interventions that make the real difference to a vulnerable family.
At the same time, there is, as Pat has pointed out, now an ‘excessive emphasis on what can be counted’ - when of course our focus should always have been on quality of outcomes, rather than pure numbers.
Quite clearly, if 5,000 children have been put through service x, y, or z - it does not necessarily make it an effective service. It’s what happens to those children after they use it that matters. Where is the life changing experience? That is how we shall be judging the efficacy and cost effectiveness of publicly funded projects in the future.
In the same way, it’s the quality of support that children in care receive that will determine how well they form attachments – which has nothing to do with any numbers’ game.
We expect Professor Munro’s review to help us move away from the current reactive, fire fighting system to one that is a more supportive, and preventative model, that both frees up social workers and gives local communities greater freedom and flexibility.
One in which that first knock on the door happens before families have entered crisis, and in effect allows social workers to foster families, and bring in holistic support and establish an empathetic relationship with their charges as we take for granted in the Scandinavian model of pedagogic social work for example.
To end, let me thank the International Association for the Study of Attachment, and its members, once again for inviting me along today. It has been an intimidating privilege to speak to you this morning.
For the last three years, IASA has done a fantastic job of informing and influencing policy makers. It has certainly found a convert in the Coalition, and I know my colleagues are hugely grateful to the likes of Melanie Gill, the Mindful Policy Group, and Dr Crittenden for contributing their expertise into publications like The Next Generation report, which has done so much to change the way we think about family support and attachments.
Undoubtedly, these are tough economic times. But we remain unapologetically committed to families and young people as a first priority of the Coalition. We do not intend to create huge flux in the system – or introduce change for change’s sake. But we do intend to accomplish a quiet revolution in encouraging an environment, in so much as Government should, that supports parents to form strong attachments with their children.
- With a move towards greater prevention. Helping parents to take the right decisions and avoid a situation whereby their children grow up unable to handle stress well, and therefore are more likely to adopt a generally long-term defensive reaction to people and events.
- With a move towards greater flexibility for professionals and local communities – rather than a one size fits all system of intervention that has already been proved to have failed.
- And, finally, with a move towards greater responsibility through the Big Society, which promises to re-imagine the relationship between state and citizen – and perhaps even more importantly, between citizen and citizen.
Under all of this policy, however, lies your work on attachment and DMM. A theory that underpins much of the direction of Coalition Policy on family, and has helped give it the scientific rigour that it will need to succeed.
My sincere thanks.