1st September 2022

Children’s Commissioner for England launches preliminary findings of The Family Review at Policy Exchange

Thank you so much for having me. I am so excited to be here today to launch my Independent Family Review. 

The genesis was the Commission and Race and Ethnic Disparities’ work. There was a need to understand families in modern England.  

I want to move us away from focusing solely on formation and measuring households towards the relationships and fundamentals of family. As Children’s Commissioner, I want children, their views, voices, experiences, and rights to be absolutely at the heart of this work. 

So, when the Government commissioned me and my office to do just that, I didn’t think twice.  

Policy makers, decision takers, need to understand how families speak about themselves, who is in the family unit, and what families want. Family is fundamental and we have become too shy about speaking about just how important it is to us all.  

If we want to create stronger, happier future generations we must start with the family. 

If we can get family right, I truly believe everything else can flow from there.  

Family was one of my priorities, because it is children’s priority. And that’s why I’m delighted to be launching Part 1 here today.  

 I have been working in education for over 30 years and have experienced, first-hand, the transformative effect outstanding schools and teachers can have on children’s lives, outcomes, and success later-on in life. And that is why I have dedicated my career to it. 

I believe that family is the only other factor that has that same or even more of a transformative effect.  

I believed this instinctively, because of my own background and my experience in the classroom.  

And this is not just my view. It’s also what children told me.  

When I took up post, I asked children about their hopes, dreams and what was important to them. I hoped family would be on the list.  

But I was surprised at just how important it is to them.  

Children in the largest-ever survey of their views The Big Ask told me how central family was to their life. About how having their own family was a priority. Especially those for whom home was difficult.  

Where children were unhappy with their family, they were nine times more likely to be unhappy in general.  

And, my research today will show how much family matters. 

When families invest in themselves and spend quality time with each other, children and parents’ well-being is higher. 

Children who are close to their parents do better in their exams, they go on to get better jobs and they are more likely have a higher hourly income at the age of 25. 

Having a stable and loving home, whatever form that takes, is linked with children’s future success. Their happiness. And their ability to form healthy and happier relationships.  

That is why we need to celebrate, understand, and invest in families, if we get family right it has a wider impact on our lives. Children are happier and more successful as adults if they are happy at home.  

This Review recognises the importance of family and sheds new light on what modern family life is.  

It is a significant piece of work grounded in family voice and featuring several new and significant findings. 

I started with a comprehensive literature review on family life and a Call for Evidence. I carried out a series of roundtables, focus groups, and interviews to hear directly from families in all their forms and from every corner of the country. To fill gaps in the existing evidence, I have commissioned two nationally representative surveys of family life and family services and conducted additional data analysis. 

I have found that there 8.2 million families with children in the UK. 63% of these families were married couples with children. 14% were cohabiting and 23% are headed by a lone parent. About 10% of families are blended families.  

In terms of size, 42% of families have one child, 42% have two children and 15% three or more children.  

And our analysis reveals how this changes by ethnicity, religious affiliation, socio-economic class and local area.  

For example, the share of families headed by single parents varies from 10% in the highest socio-economic group to 28% in the lowest socio-economic group.  

The share of births to lone mothers ranged from 5% in the Cotswolds to 31% in Knowsley. Research shows that we can explain about half of the differences in the share of births to lone mothers across local areas by the differences in unemployment rates, economically inactive rates, and education levels.   

The share of families with three or more children varies from 14% in White British families to 41% in Pakistani families and 38% in Bangladeshi families.  

Family structure has gradually changed over the last 20 years. 

There are fewer married couples. 

There are more couples cohabiting.  

There are fewer ‘traditional’ nuclear family units today. 

44% of children born at the start of the century, were not in a nuclear family for their full childhood, compared to 21% of children born in 1970.  

Over 80,000 children are in care, and many more in less formal arrangements, including kinship care. 

As you can see, family is always changing.  

It is dynamic and we need to find new ways to stay up to date with how it is changing so we can support it effectively.  

But, one of the most interesting findings is that the percentage of families who are lone parents has not changed much in the last 20 years.  

Lone parents make up 23% of families with children in the UK. 

When I explored this in more detail, I found that the UK is an anomaly.  

The rate of lone parent households is higher than in all European countries except for Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Denmark. In Europe, the average share of families with children headed by lone parents is 13%.  

It is clear that in the UK, life can be more difficult for lone parent families. Lone parents are more likely to be in financial difficulties.  

In 2020, 49% of children living in lone parent families were in relative poverty after housing costs, compared with 25% of children living in married or cohabiting families. 

The reasons for this are understandable, with the rising cost of living and childcare costs creating challenging environments for lone parents.  

We must look more at how we can support these lone parents when addressing some of these issues moving forward.  

As you know, I am not an economist but, coming from an area like Scunthorpe I have experienced first-hand, having moved to London when I was 18, what regional disparity means in practice. What inequality of opportunity means on a personal level. What happens when ambition locally isn’t matched nationally. I’ve seen the difference a relentless focus and investment can make. How brilliant public services matched by a thriving economy can really change peoples’ lives. We need that everywhere.  

If we do this we can support the families that need it most.  

Alongside this, another thing that has undoubtedly affected all families recently is the pandemic.  

The pandemic reaffirmed the importance of family.  

It also provided an opportunity to reset relationships within the family – 25% of parents said their relationships with their children improved in covid.  

Families who felt they spent enough time enough time together were happier with their family relationships.  

And younger children, aged 4-5, who most enjoyed playing with their family were happier with their life overall.  

The amount of time fathers spent on unpaid childcare almost doubled from 47 minutes a day in 2014-2015, to 90 minutes a day during lockdown, but has fallen back to 56 minutes in 2022.  

And I am still exploring how children and families have been more broadly affected by the pandemic, but it is undoubtedly true that some vulnerabilities have been exacerbated.  

But despite the change during the pandemic and families coming in different formations, and sizes.  

What I want to recognise today is that there is one thing that unifies all families.  

Irrespective of ethnicity, gender or age, the most frequently used word to describe family was love. And they all recognise that family has a protective effect.  

It insulates us from life’s adversity, and every child should have the benefits of it.  

This Review has shown for the first time ever – that family has a ‘protective effect’.  

These core protective elements of family are love, strong and enduring relationships, the ability to depend on one another for emotional and practical support and shared experiences.  

Time and time again, parents and children told us that these core elements give rise to an incredibly powerful effect which underpinned their confidence.  

To speak this through in more detail. It’s more about the quality of family relationships than family composition. Our research shows that, across all income levels, your ability to rely on family ‘a lot’ in time of crisis is associated with significantly higher overall well-being.  

Our research also shows that close relationships between children and their parents are associated with better outcomes for children, from higher Early Years Foundation Stage scores, to better GCSE scores to wages in young adulthood. 

Our research shows that this protective effect can change over time, as family dynamics change. Of those who reported they could not rely on their family, less than a quarter were still in this position 3 years later and 9 years later.  

Of course, some families have had and will have more to battle against. Some will require support, and other statutory intervention to keep children safe.  

As Children’s Commissioner, with a statutory duty towards children who are in care, I want every single child to grow up in a family, even if that cannot be their biological one, where living with their birth family might not be in their best interests. I have heard from so many children who love and care for their adoptive, foster or kinship family. I want that especially for those who need it most.   

While there are things, like domestic abuse or child abuse, that undermine the protective effect, we must design and deliver a system that provides an equally insulating alternative. 

There are times though when with some additional support, earlier, might be enough the keep a family together. Sometimes that help will be for mum. Sometimes for the child, or wider family.  

So who or where do families turn to when they need support.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given all that I have already shared today, most families choose to access protection and support from their own networks, parents, grandparents, and in some cases, friends.  

78% of parents’ preference is for the advice and support of family. 

And I heard time and time again the importance of peer support – the value of being able to share experiences with those in similar circumstances.   

51% of parents told me that they would turn to their friends for advice. 

And when family and friend support networks are not enough families want services that are accessible and that do not stigmatise.  

They want to form trusted relationships with professionals that have the longevity required to see them through. To be compassionate, flexible, and trusting.  

I heard many examples of excellent service provision that helped families through challenging times – from toddler groups to support groups, in both community settings and state-run setting. But, I also heard cases where families couldn’t access services or services had let families down in their time of need. 

My own helpline, Help at Hand, supported nearly 1,000 children directly last year, to unlock additional support for those where the system was working against rather than for them. There were acute cases of children with additional needs needing wrap around support which wasn’t available, and those with disabilities not being able to access the respite care they so needed.  

A common theme was large regional variation of availability and access to services. For example, while 94% of babies in London received the first check they are entitled to as part of the Healthy Child Programme, only 77% of those in the South-West received this check. Our survey found that while 35% of parents in London had been to a playgroup in the last year with a child under 5, while only 19% of those in the West Midlands had.  

If we want these systems to work for families, then we need to think about them in the context of what families want and need and who forms the family unit.  

I want decision makers and implementers to understand families’ needs. To understand what families, mean when they say they want services to feel familial. Local. Relationship based.  

This is a mission of mine over the coming months.  

Children tell me family is everything. Parents tell me family is everything. So, now, we all must give family the same primacy and priority they give themselves.  

Part of this is about not being afraid to talk about family. About love. About relationships. Another part is more practical. That is why I am revising the Family Test to make it fit-for-purpose, to reflect how children and families see themselves. So that everyone across Government has a common framework to design and deliver policy that works for families.  

I am producing a new outcomes framework so all services are working towards the outcomes that matter to families too. 

Policy makers must understand how families see themselves. And I want data on family to reflect how families are formed, not just thinking in a binary way about households. 

I want us to be confident when we speak about families. Not to be squeamish. But instead to recognise the fundamental role family plays.  

Now is the moment to gear change.  

Being a parent is a responsibility you cannot do in half measures. I have been inspired by amazing stories of those doing it well, but we have to do more to ensure that this is the reality for all children. For most, that will be at home with their birth parents, it must equally be true for those where it is someone else.  

Investing in family is the single greatest investment you can make. If we do it right it is self-sustaining unit and there to catch us when we fall, and if you are part of a strong family, you cast your net wider to catch others. 

I am calling on everyone to put family centre stage of their agenda. If we get this right at a critical moment for families across the country, we will benefit generations to come and change children’s lives.  

Thank you.