Effective social action: an approach to delivering race equality

Deciding how to effectively address a social ill often appears to be fraught with difficulty.  The Government launch of the Serious Violence Strategy, is perhaps the latest example. The call by many families and communities for action to end the violence that has seen a rise in the number of deaths in London, has quickly descended into hyperbole, with the suggestions that the ‘murder-rate’ in London has overtaken New York regularly repeated, without qualification or explanation.  However, it often appears that the only way to secure social action is to highlight how damaging a problem is and the urgency of action. In this context, it is no surprise then, those of us calling for action to address the impact of racism will highlight the persistence of discrimination in access to employment or under-representation in popular media, or over-representation in poorest quality private housing.  But, such an approach to addressing racial discrimination has its limitations. First, it is very easy to slip into a victimology that denies agency and sees black and minority ethnic people as passive victims with little opportunity to control and shape their lives. Second, it is equally easy to conclude that not much has changed since the arrival of the Windrush and as a consequence there has been little improvement in the experience and outcomes of those who have hoped to make a better life for them and their children in Britain.  Third, and perhaps most worrying for effective social action, we pay little attention to whether policies, strategies or interventions have worked, with whom and why.

Yet there are examples of attempts to progress race equality by better understanding what works and building on this.  In the mid-1990s a study by the Foundation of what were then called family centres (Butt and Box, 1998) highlighted the widespread deployment of parent education programmes, but the lack of take-up of these programmes by black and minority ethnic parents.  Literature reviews at the time suggested that it was not that parents from these communities did not need support, it was more that programmes were not reaching out to these parents and/or the curriculums were not engaging and retaining parents. This was at odds with evidence from the US, which showed African American, as well as Latin American and Asian American parents, attending programmes which resulted in growth in their own confidence, positive change in relationships and in improvements in outcomes for children.  We conducted a review of programmes available in the US and brought over one to trial in England. After working with parents to sensitise the programme to England, it was deployed in London and the West Midlands through black and minority ethnic-led and other voluntary organisations.

The Strengthening Families Strengthening Communities (SFSC) parenting programme sets out to support a violence free healthy lifestyle.  SFSC is a 13 week, inclusive, evidence-based parenting programme designed to promote some of the protective factors associated with better outcomes for children.  At the same time, SFSC helps parents to explore and develop strategies for dealing with the factors in parenting that are associated with increased risk of poor outcomes for children, such as harsh and/or inconsistent discipline.  Focusing on helping parents to develop self esteem, self discipline and social competence in children and young people, as well as enhancing family cohesion and building effective support networks for parents and children alike, SFSC offers a real opportunity for building family and community resilience.

The evidence from a range of evaluations shows not only high rates of retention (on average 76 per cent complete the programme) and recommendation (99 per cent would recommend the programme to other families) it also shows a range of outcomes from including a statistically significant change in parents’ self-esteem, confidence in their parenting, family relationships (in the main with their partner, but also with other adults) and relationships with their children. Parents also report growth in their child’s self-esteem and their child’s ability to manage their own behaviour.

Furthermore studies demonstrate both reach and impact with a range of parents who have not been engaged by other programmes or approaches. Karlsen (2013) looked at a sample of 1842 parents and highlighted the diversity of the parents who complete SFSC; showing a large proportion of people on low incomes (on average 60 per cent of participants have household income of less than £10,000), fathers (59 per cent of programmes have at least one father participating), lone parents (on average 60 per cent of participants were lone parents at the time of participating), and a range of white and black and minority ethnic parents regularly participate (in overall terms 55 per cent of participants were from black and minority ethnic groups and 45 per cent were white communities).  Other published studies have used scientifically validated tests to report on these and other outcomes. In 2010, Lindsay et al from the Warwick University’s Centre for Educational Development and Research, published another comparative study examining three model parenting programmes delivered in the UK, and reported that parents who had completed SFSC demonstrated statistically significant improvements in mental well-being and parenting efficacy.

SFSC was one of the three recommended programmes for the Department of Education funded Parenting Early Intervention Pathfinders 2006-2008 and was one of the evidence-based programmes supported by National Academy for Parenting Practitioners between 2008 and 2010 and subsequently by the Children’s Workforce Development Council.  More recently, SFSC was included in the CanParent Government-led trial to make parenting programmes available to all parents of under 5’s and has also been used by the Family Intervention Pathfinders in Bristol, Grimsby, Leicester and Tower Hamlets. SFSC continues to be a programme used to prevent violence by local authorities such as Waltham Forest, Hertfordshire and Manchester, a point recognised by the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy.

It would be foolhardy to claim that the experience of SFSC suggests that our approach to progressing race equality is the only effective one.  Furthermore, understanding what has made a difference can prove to be a challenge as illustrated by the debate that has surrounded improvement in educational attainment of a range of black and minority ethnic children in London.  However, the demonstrable success in reaching, engaging and impacting on black and minority ethnic parents and children suggests that it is certainly one effective approach. Our experience also suggests that when we are successful in understanding and implementing support for black and minority ethnic communities, we are likely to put in place the components to reach and impact white majority communities who were poorly served to date.

Jabeer Butt is Acting Chief Executive at the Race Equality Foundation