Harry Benson is the author of “Let’s Stick Together – the relationship book for new parents” and Communications Director of The Marriage Foundation.
There is a fundamental flaw at the heart of current attempts at “early intervention”. Until recently, we used to have a terrific NHS post-natal system run by health visitors. Programmes lasted a few weeks, were preventive, educational, focused, supportive and extremely well-attended by as many as 40% of all first time mothers.
In the last few years, that system has more or less collapsed, supplanted by the broader Sure Start Children’s Centre early years support groups. The problem is that Sure Start is failing to attract anything like the same numbers of parents. Those who do attend tend to stay in their groups for many months in what feels less like early intervention and more like state-sponsored coffee shop.
For the last six years, I and my volunteers have run an early intervention for new parents in both NHS post-natal clinics and Sure Start centres in the Bristol area. We teach couples how to stay together through a single session relationship programme called “Let’s Stick Together”. It’s early intervention, it’s preventive and it’s evidence-based. Once people realise that they’re not being counselled, almost everyone finds it enjoyable and useful. Our programme is short and sweet but it accesses a higher proportion of parents than has ever been achieved in the UK. Over seven years, we’ve accessed 4,000 first time mothers in Bristol. My joint venture with a national charity is currently being evaluated, and funded in part, by the Department for Education.
The flow of our work in Bristol tells the story of early intervention. Within the last few years, we have seen at first-hand the near collapse of the post-natal system. Health visitors have been sucked away from routine post-natal care of new mothers into child protection and paperwork. Most of the post-natal clinics that we used to visit have shut down as a result. In 2008-9, NHS post-natal clinics made up 90% of our work. Today, it’s less than a third.