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Growing up in Scotland: Parental service use and informal networks in the early years



1.1 Background to the research

The Early Years Framework (Scottish Government, 2008) acknowledges the central importance of parenting and family capacity in delivering improved outcomes for children and families by making this one of the four core strands. In so doing, the Framework highlights the importance of providing parents with appropriate and integrated support which will, amongst other things, allow them "to develop the skills needed to provide a nurturing and stimulating home environment free from conflict" and "meet a range of needs they [parents] may have" (Scottish Government, 2008: 11). The Scottish Government sees the Getting it right for every child approach as the key delivery mechanism for improving children's services.

Acknowledging the important role of parents in children's lives and a commitment to supporting this role is not new to Scottish social policy. Over the last decade, the Scottish Government and local authorities have supported the introduction of a range of legislation, policies and interventions focused on improving parenting capacity through the delivery of parenting support and education (Hutton et al, 2008). Such policies range from broad-reaching institution-based 'universal' parenting education classes, such as the Triple P programme currently being delivered to parents of Primary 1 children in Glasgow, to more targeted in-home support for key at-risk groups such as young, first-time mothers supported through the intensive services of the 'Family Nurse Partnership' and 'You First' in the Lothian area.

However, the success of the majority of parenting support policies and interventions relies on the voluntary participation of parents in the programmes, classes, groups and services designed to improve parenting knowledge and skills and ultimately benefit their children. Indeed, recent research with Scottish practitioners delivering services for parents highlights their support for voluntary engagement and co-operation rather than compulsion to attend (Hutton et al, 2008). Yet, existing evidence from the Growing Up in Scotland Study ( GUS) has shown that some parents are reluctant to ask for help and/or are unclear who to go to for support (Anderson et al, 2007; Bradshaw et al, 2008a). Furthermore, a history of parenting services being equated with parental failure rather than as a positive support service, has led to the stigmatisation of parenting support when offered by prominent formal agencies. GUS data has illustrated a wariness of such support amongst some parents, particularly those in more disadvantaged circumstances (Bradshaw et al, 2008a). In addition, research using GUS has also demonstrated the significant role played by informal social networks in providing support for families with young children (Bradshaw et al 2008a; Bradshaw and Jamieson, 2009).

Understanding patterns of contact and engagement with more 'formal' parenting services is useful for practitioners in planning and delivering such services and key to ensuring the success of this strand of the Early Years Framework. However, a recent literature review found little available evidence on the characteristics of those who do not engage with services nor on the barriers to and attitudes towards participation (MacQueen et al, 2008). Indeed, there appears to have been little progress in this area since the Black Report in 1980, which identified women of multiple disadvantage as being less likely to attend ante-natal classes. The issue around this, and other service use, relates back to Hart's Inverse Care Law, which suggests that the people most in need of support and help were found to be those least likely to access it (Black et al, 1980). The more recent research that exists on the characteristics of those who do not engage has found that characteristics are multiple and can change over time. Hutton et al (2008) found that factors impacting on engagment included low self-esteem and confidence in parents, social isolation and deprivation as well as poor service provision.

As the inverse care law suggests, many of the factors that contribute to poor outcomes, are also thought to be related to accessing services. However this may not always be the case. A recent publication by Hoffait et al (2011) explored whether characteristics previously linked in research to poorer child outcomes were also related to engagement of younger mothers in the West Lothian Sure Start Young Mums to Be program. The research found that factors such as experiencing domestic abuse, having family problems or mental health issues (among others) were not linked to engagement or disengagement of this vunerable group.

In researching this area, it is also important to acknowledge the significant role informal social support networks play in building a complete picture of parental support in the early years. Informal support for families with multiple disadvantages, but particularly with low incomes, has been recognised as being important in many studies (Bradshaw et al, 2008a; Bradshaw and Jamieson, 2009, McKendrick et al , 2003, O'Connor and Lewis, 1999, among others). However, the role of informal support is often explored separately to the receipt of formal support.

The Growing Up in Scotland ( GUS) study provides a unique opportunity to present a more detailed exploration of parents' use and contact with services during the early years period alongside the support they receive from informal sources. Analysis of this data can provide a better understanding of the factors associated with different patterns of service use and engagement. The aim of this project is to explore the relative roles of formal service use and informal networks in supporting families in the early years, how these vary according to key socio-economic and demographic characteristics and as children get older.

1.2 Research questions

This report will seek to answer a number of distinct research questions:

1. What services do parents draw on in the early years and how do patterns of service use vary between parents and over time?

2. What might explain differences in service use?

3. What is the role of informal social support and how, if at all, does it relate to patterns of service use?

For the purposes of this project, 'service use' is defined as any contact the cohort child's parent has with a wide range of statutory or voluntary agencies in order to seek advice, information or support in relation to the cohort child 3. Services that GUS has asked parents about include: sources used for advice on pregnancy, child health, behaviour, pre-school and primary school; contact with health and social work professionals; attendance at ante-natal classes; use of childcare, including breakfast clubs and after-school clubs; and contact with the child's pre-school or primary school. Some data is also available on attendance at parenting classes and groups. This report will focus on services considered important to parenting and important to parents.

Initial analysis explores the prevalence of each contact and how contact changes over time as the child gets older. Differences in patterns of contact and services used across the various broad service 'types' will be explored by key family socio-economic and demographic characteristics including maternal age, household income, number of children in household and birth order, maternal mental health and family type (lone parent versus couple family) in order to examine which factors more strongly influence service use.

In an attempt to understand why patterns of service use vary, the next stage of the analysis will use an additional set of data from GUS which details attitudes towards help-seeking behaviour and formal services. Previous analysis has already shown how these attitudes vary across parents with different characteristics and the relationship between attitudes to help-seeking and use of informal support. GUS also collects a range of data on why parents have not used particular services such as ante-natal classes, childcare, child immunisations, and parent and toddler groups. These data will be explored descriptively to identify any common barriers either for parents as a whole, or for particular sub-groups and whether barriers or reasons change for families over time.

The final stage of the analysis will examine specifically the relationship between patterns of informal support and service use. This analysis will explore whether lower use of, and contact with, services is associated with a greater reliance on informal sources of advice and support or whether there is a group of 'unsupported parents' which the policymakers and service providers should be particularly concerned about engaging with.

1.3 The Growing Up in Scotland study

The analysis in this report uses information from families in the birth cohort that took part in all of the first five years (sweeps) of GUS ( n = 3621 ). 4 Some families who initially took part in GUS did not do so for all of the subsequent sweeps. There are a number of reasons why respondents drop out from longitudinal surveys and such attrition is not random. All of the statistics have been weighted by a specially constructed longitudinal weight to adjust for non-response and sample selection. Both weighted and unweighted sample sizes are given in each table. Standard errors have been adjusted to take account of the cluster sampling 5.

Interviews took place around six weeks before the child's birthday, therefore at year 1 of the study, children were 10 months old, at year 2 they were 22 months old, at year 3 they were 34 months, at year 4 they were 46 months and at year 5 they were 58 months. For the purposes of this report, beyond the first interview, the child's age will be referred to in years. It is worth bearing in mind however that a 1-year-old child at year 2 for example, is actually 22 months old or just under 2.

1.4 Technical appendix

Readers interested in the details of the analyses should consult the Technical Appendix published alongside this report.