What does ‘turning around’ a ‘troubled family’ really mean?


Last week DCLG announced that ‘The Troubled Families scheme has turned around the lives of 14,000 of England’s toughest to tackle households in just 15 months’. Eric Pickles suggested that this number was ‘phenomenal’ and ‘a huge achievement to have turned so many around in such a short space of time.’ So, great news all round then.

But does it all sound a bit too good to be true? Most press coverage that I have seen repeats the phrase ‘turning around’ without examining or explaining exactly what it means, so that is what this post is about.

The 14,000 number comes from figures released last week which show that, across England, local authorities have claimed the performance-by-results payment from DCLG for certain outcomes achieved by this number of families. In total, nearly 50,000 ‘troubled families’ have been worked with, but only 14,000 have so far achieved the outcomes required for the ‘incentive’ payment.

Let us, at this point, remember that the initial figure for how many ‘troubled families’ there were in England was based on the number who, in the Family & Children Survey 2005, reported having 5 out of 7 of the following ‘disadvantages’:

a) no parent in work,

b) poor quality housing,

c) no parent with qualifications,

d) mother with mental health problems,

e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness,

f) family has low income,

g) Family cannot afford some food/clothing items

The table below (taken from p9 of the TFP Financial Framework) shows what outcomes are required for local authorities to claim for the result based payment. You will note that none of the criteria in the table relate to housing, qualifications, maternal mental health, disability/illness, income (being in work doesn’t always guarantee you a higher income – think zero hours contracts) or deprivation. (See Ruth Levitas’ paper ‘There may be trouble ahead’ for a full discussion on what this ‘discursive shift’ means). Clicking on the table should open it in a larger format.

TFP financial framework

What is interesting is that local authorities can – and many have – claim to have ‘turned round’ the life of a ‘troubled family’ if certain aspects of their behaviour changes, even though they may not have found work. In other words, their material circumstances may not have improved and may even have got worse. So, if the TFP is about stopping families behaving badly, that might still seem like a positive result, but if the payment is based on their kids starting to attend school a bit more for a 6 month period or things ‘quieten down’ for a bit, it doesn’t, I would argue, amount to their life being ‘turned around’. Positive, welcome steps, yes. Complete turnaround, no.

But it is also possible for a local authority to claim money (£800) if at least one adult in the family moves into continuous employment, without any other behaviour change. So, these families can continue behaving exactly as they have done (it may or may not have been troublesome behaviour) and the government will claim their lives have been turned around, as long as they have ‘moved into continuous employment’ for 6 months. Continuous employment is variously defined as 26 weeks out of 30 (is this continuous – or a possible example of ‘churning’ in and out of employment – a low-pay, no-pay cycle?) or 13 consecutive weeks (3 month temporary contract anyone?) depending on which benefits were originally being claimed.

There is a third way of claiming £100, linked to the crime/ASB/education outcomes if an adult in the family ‘progresses towards work’.

One thing worth noting here is that money can be paid out on an ‘either or’ basis – but not twice. So if a family meets the crime/ASB/education criteria and an adult finds work, the local authority will only be paid £800, not £1500. So there is, one could argue, no incentive – perhaps even a disincentive – to adopt a holistic ‘whole family’ approach to a resolving ‘troubles’. However, the way it is often reported, ‘turning around’ a family often appears to include ALL of these things. A good example is a written statement Eric Pickles gave to Parliament. He said:

Up to the end of July 2013, upper-tier local authorities have reported that they have turned around nearly 14,000 troubled families. The figure represents a seven-fold increase from January which means children are back in school for at least 3 terms where they were previously playing truant or excluded; high levels of youth crime and anti-social behaviour are down over at least 6 months; and adults are getting off benefits and into work for at least 3 months. (my emphasis)

Another example can be found in an article in The Telgraph which states that ‘Families are considered to be “turned around” if several measures are met, including if children go back to school, adults are taken off benefits and levels of criminal behaviour are reduced’ (my emphasis)

So, a troubled family’s life can be counted as being ‘turned around’ even if there remains no adult in work in the household or, if one adult does find work, they can commit as much ASB/crime/truancy as they like and the government will still pay out as they’ll be deemed ‘trouble-free’. In fact, looking at the release of the figures, in less than 5% of those families that had been ‘turned around’ did an adult move into ‘continuous employment’. In the North East, it was closer to 2.6%. In Newcastle, the city council ‘turned around’ the lives of 303 families, none of whom found work or achieved the ‘progress to work’ outcome. What would Jim Royle say if he was asked if these families lives had been ‘turned around’?

I’m also intrigued by how the government is able to claim that all of the ‘success’ that has been achieved is the the result of the TFP approach. How many of these families would have found employment without the support of the ‘key worker’? How many would have been supported to change their behaviour through other (perhaps existing) approaches or without any help atall? The answer is we don’t know. A guide to evidence and good practice in working with ‘troubled families’, published by DCLG earlier this year notes that

There are some notable limitations to the evidence base. The first is that most studies are limited in what can be concluded from them about the degree to which improvements for families are attirubtable to the intervention specifically, when external factors are taken into account. (p34, my emphasis)

An independent evaluation of the TFP has been commissioned (which may examine control groups or other approaches) but it hasn’t published any findings yet. So how can Eric Pickles claim that ‘these figures show that our no-nonsense approach is changing families for the better’?

A final problem (for now) is that people’s lives are complex, they are dynamic and much as the government would like to portray these families as a lumpen, static underclass, their circumstances (or behaviours if you want to see it in that way) can and do change over time, as the results suggest. But, such is the ‘burden on the taxpayer’ from these families, the government wants to ‘deliver maximum value for money’ and so they have stated in the TFP Financial Framework that ‘we need to ensure as far as possible, that we don’t pay twice for the same family’ (p10) and the TFP funding is only available for ‘turning around the lives of five out of every six troubled family in each local authority area’ (p11). So, there is no financial incentive if, after receiving payment for turning around a family’s life, a child from that family stops attending school, or ASB incidents start to happen again or if the working adult finds themselves out of work again. If achieving these outcomes count as turning around their lives one must also accept that a lapse or lapses must be devastating and must have serious consequences.

All of this raises concerns about PBR and ‘incentivising’ methods in public services, which have been articulated elsewhere but it does mean that public sector bodies will be expected to work with families with serious and multiple disadvantages without the dangling carrot of £700 or £800 at the end of it. Pretty much like they and their workers have been doing for many, many years before the TFP came along – and will still be doing long after it has gone.

Frontline and symbolic violence


Those who govern are prisoners of a reassuring entourage of young technocrats who often know almost nothing about the everyday lives of their fellow citizens and have no occasion to be reminded of their ignorance. (Bourdieu 1999, p627)

Frontline, the ‘Teach First for social work’ launched last week with the help of Richard Branson’s daughter, amid much positive media attention and much scepticism from social work practitioners and academics. I’m not going to comment too much on Frontline or its criticisms of social work. I’m not a qualified and/or practicing social worker and whilst this didn’t stop Josh Macalister believing he had the answer to its ills, I guess I’m not so self-assured. There have already been a number of thoughtful (and thought-provoking) blogs and articles which have been written by social work students, social work practitioners and social work academics (the latter raises the issue of a lack of involvement of service users in the development of Frontline). There has also been a joint statement written by and on behalf of leading social work academics (JUCSWEC & APSW) expressing concerns about Frontline.

Instead I want to try and offer a slightly more sociological perspective and focus a little bit on how it can be that someone who has been a teacher for a couple of years can write a fairly flimsy document (less than 1 side of A4 on the current policy context for social work – really?) and have it adopted and supported by government all in the space of a year or so, whilst the concerns of existing practitioners and academics are largely ignored. Drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of doxosophers, Stabile & Marooka argue that there are spontaneous intellectuals (2003, p333) who act as knee-jerk critics and providers of legitimacy(and) tend to subscribe to the doxic view of the world, repeat political slogans, and make it easier ‘to speak glibly about the world’ (p330). Bourdieu himself wrote that

Social science today is up against anyone and everyone with a claim to interpret the most obvious signs of social malaise … It has to deal with all these people, too clever by half and armed with their ‘common sense’ and their pretensions, who rush into print or to appear on television to tell us what is going on in a social world that they have no effective means of either knowing or understanding (1999, p628)

Macalister was supported by IPPR, a ‘progressive think-tank’ who have previously advocated freezing child benefit for 10 years. I have blogged about IPPR and the role of think-tanks in the development of welfare and anti-poverty policy in another guise but Wacquant sums them up better than I can. He accuses similar organisations and researchers of ‘false thinking and false science’ (2004, p99) jumping from ‘social problem’ to ‘social problem’ at the whim of media and political demand (p100).

Bourdieu highlights the role of a reassuring entourage of young technocrats and half-wise economists (1998, p5) within the right hand of the state (central government), with the left hand being workers and junior civil servants tasked with carrying out the states wishes. He suggests that

I think that the left hand of the state has the sense that the right hand no longer knows, or, worse, no longer wants to know what the left hand does

All that is somewhat shocking, especially for those who are sent into the front line to perform so called ‘social’ work to compensate for the most flagrant inadequacies of the logic of the market, without being given the means to really do their job. How could they not have the sense of being constantly undermined or betrayed?

It should have been clear a long time ago that their revolt goes far beyond questions of salary, even if the salary granted is an unequivocal index of the value placed on the work and the corresponding workers. Contempt for a job is shown first of all in the more or less derisory remuneration it is given.(p2)

In response to a question about the scope for government intervention, Bourdieu argues that their scope is less limited than they would have us believe and that there remains one area where governments have considerable scope: that of the symbolic (p3).

Viewed in this way, it is hard to argue that the development of Frontline and the very explicit support it has been given by government is anything other than an act of symbolic violence against current social work practice and training. I would argue that the choice of the term Frontline is itself an act of symbolic violence against social service users. It is unnecessarily adversarial and suggests the need for flak jackets on a daily basis. (If you google images for ‘front line’ the majority of the images are of combat situations). However, the major act of violence here is in misrecognising the causes of ‘problems’ within families by proposing that social work needs an image makeover and that ‘great people’/’outstanding graduates’ can make a real, lasting difference after spending a few weeks at Social Work Summer Camp – by extension implying that current practice and education in this area has ‘failed’, whilst ignoring the wider socio-economic factors which remain undiscussed and unchanged. Garrett highlights this when he writes

The state is apt to disappear and the resolution of issues partly rooted in (mis)recognition is almost entirely displaced onto micro-encounters. In this way, such encounters become conceptually overburdened with expectation because they are exchanges lacking the capacity to eradicate and combat structurally generated (mis)recognition. (2013, p182)

So what are social workers and academics to do? Judging by the reaction on social media and other forums for their voices to be heard, it seems like there is plenty of appetite for challenging the design of Frontline and what it represents. Bourdieu would have approved. He believed that nothing is less innocent than non-interference (1999, p269) in these matters.


Bourdieu, P. (1998) Acts of Resistance: Against the new myths of our time, Cambridge: Polity

Bourdieu, P et al (1999) The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, Stanford: SUP

Garrett, P. M. (2013) Social work and social theory: Making connections, Bristol: Policy Press

Stabile, C.A. & Marooka, J. (2003) ‘Between Two Evils, I Refuse to Choose the Lesser’, Cultural Studies, 17:3-4 pp326-348

Wacquant, L. (2004) Critical Thought as Solvent of Doxa, Constellations, 11:1 pp91-101

What goes without saying comes without saying (Part 2)

lousie casey 3

Louise Casey grabbed the headlines yesterday with an interview she gave in the Telegraph where she suggested that ‘having a baby might not be the best solution’ for families that are struggling. Following on from the first post which looked at Eric Pickles ‘common sense’ approach this post will explore Casey’s words in a bit more detail to see what remain unquestioned and self-evident.

Casey said:

My own personal experience is that families with lots of children across lots of different age groups are stretched. Managing a 21-year-old that’s still living with you that’s committing crime down to having another one that’s two, anybody would see that that’s a challenge.

Having a baby might not be the best solution, and actually doing something just for themselves like getting a job, getting on a course, getting their health sorted out could be the right thing to do.

The best family intervention gets into the family and helps them see what’s the best way for them to go forward. Sometimes adding another child isn’t right.

(Asked whether that included accompanying women to go to the doctor to get advice about contraception, she replied)

Yes that’s right. I’ve come across cases where that’s what some family intervention project workers have done, definitely.

A picture is very cleverly painted of mothers who are sexually (over) active without contraception over a long period of time, probably lone parents (no mention at all of fathers, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends etc) who can’t control their children and who see having more children as ‘a solution’ to their ‘troubles’. None of this is supported by any evidence and, in fact, Casey has form in talking about large families. Ruth Levitas has argued that her ‘Listening to Troubled Families’ report was

Policy making by anecdote, more akin to tabloid journalism than serious research … ‘Listening to Troubled Families’ presents the problem as one of large families by multiple partners forming a burgeoning dysfunctional underclass resistant to reform.

Bev Skeggs has written that ‘in any definition of respectability, sexuality lurks beneath the inscription’ and that it is usually in regard to the ‘governance’ of sexuality (p37, 2004). Lisa McKenzie’s recent work in St. Ann’s in Nottingham draws on Skeggs and highlights that working class women ‘have to work hard in becoming respectable, usually through adopting middle-class practices and by ‘dis-identifying’ from being working class’ – the ‘getting a job, getting on a course’ in Casey’s words.

McKenzie also notes that cultural signifiers

… do a great deal of work in coding a way of life that has been deemed valueless, and become more poignant when we are discussing working class women whose bodies, appearance, bearing and adornment are also central in coding working class people.(p5, 2013)

Sexuality could also be added to the above list. There are further parallels that can be drawn between the sexually active (probably lone?) mother of a 21-year-old in Casey’s vignette and the way in which working class mothers of mixed race children are often thought of in McKenzie’s work:

Zena said to me that everyone thinks ‘she’s up for it’ and Lynn, a woman in her forties with an adult daughter, described being known as ‘rough’ because she came from a council estate and also ‘ready’ meaning sexually available. (p7, 2013)

Casey didn’t explicitly say that ‘these families need to stop shagging/breeding’, although given her desire not to ‘hide behind shades of language’ and a seeming preference for ‘being straight with people’ it’s presumably not out of the question in future inteviews. For now, though, we are left to ‘join up the dots of pathologisation’ (McKenzie p5, 2013) and Casey has certainly made sure we get the picture.


McKenzie, L. (2013) Narratives from a Nottingham council estate: a story of white working-class mothers with mixed-race children, Ethnic and Racial Studies, DOI:10.1080/01419870.2013.776698

Skeggs, B. (2004) Class Self and Culture, London: Routledge

What goes without saying comes without saying (Part 1)


Eric Pickles and Louise Casey performed something of a doxic double-act yesterday when discussing the latest figures and ‘phenomenal’ progress of the Troubled Families Programme. On a number of occasions they left things un-said and, in doing so, created a self-evident, common sense view of the world which didn’t need to be discussed.  Bourdieu suggested that ‘what is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying’ (p 167, 1977) and that politicians seek to portray the arbitrary as natural and self-evident.  I think it’s worth looking at some of this doxa that was secreted yesterday. We’ll look at Pickles contribution in this blog and Casey’s in another one here.

Pickles actually talked about a ‘no-nonsense and common sense approach’ but the bit that caught my eye is below:

Louise is not afraid of inflicting that pain. It’s tough love. I think we’re not doing this to be unpleasant to people, we are doing this to say you are ruining your life, you are ruining the lives of your children.

If we don’t do something now 25 years from now we’ll be dealing with your children. That gives people a chance.

Implicit and unspoken within this is that these families don’t respond to a caring and supportive approach, what Pickles called elsewhere ‘a lot of feeling people’s pain’. They only respond to ‘pain’ being inflicted on them, incapable of higher cognitive function and the implication is that they are probably incapable of offering care or support to others if they don’t respond to such an approach themselves.

Pickles, in talking about ‘ruining’ the lives of their children and setting the scene for 25 years down the line borrows from intergenerational transmission arguments. He leaves no room for doubt that these families will bring up children who will prove to be a similar ‘problem’ to the state and others. Pickles line bears close resemblance to a sentence written by Henry Herbert Goddard in 1912 in a book  looking at ‘feeblemindedness’. He wrote that ‘for practical purposes it is, of course, pretty clear that it is safe to assume that two feeble-minded parents will never have anything but feeble-minded children.’ (pp104-114, 1912, in Welshman p52, 2006)

But the idea has been widely discredited, especially in this country. Very recent work has focused on the idea that ‘cultures of worklessness’ are passed down the generations (see Shildrick et al 2012). However, if we look at the ‘Transmitted Deprivation’ programme in the 1970s extensive academic work, commissioned and instigated by the Conservative MP Sir Keith Joseph found falws with the thesis that familial cycles of disadvantage existed. Rutter and Madge, in a review of the evidence, write:

… this apparent focus on the family is too narrow. In the first place … continuities over time regarding high rates of various forms of disadvantage can be seen in terms of schools, inner city areas, social classes, ethnic groups and other social and cultural situations which lie outside the family.  These are also highly important. In the second place, even with respect to familial continuities, the reason for the intergenerational continuity may not be familial at all but rather may reflect the influence of a common social environment or a common political structure on successive generations.

… even with the variables showing the strongest continuities across successive generations, discontinuities are prominent and frequent. Among children reared under conditions of severe multiple disadvantage, many develop normally (sic) and go on in adult life to produce, happy non-disadvantaged families of their own. Although intergenerational cycles of disadvantage exist, the exceptions are many and a surprisingly large proportion of people of people reared in conditions of privation and suffering do NOT reproduce that pattern in the next generation. (pp5-6, 1976, original emphasis)

But then, none of the findings from this research programme, or others like it, ever get discussed by the likes of Pickles who prefer to define the world using ‘common sense’ approaches. I’ll finish with a bit of Bourdieu, who wrote:

In class societies, in which the definition of the social world is at stake in overt or latent class struggle, the drawing of the line between the field of opinion, of that which is explicitly questioned, and the field of doxa, of that which is beyond question and which each agent tacitly accords by the mere fact of acting in accord with social convention, is itself a fundamental objective at stake in that form of class struggle which is the struggle for the imposition of the dominant systems of classification. (p 169, 1977)

The second part of this post, on Louise Casey’s comments on contraception, can be found here


Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice, New York: Cambridge University Press

Goddard, H. H. (1912) The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeblemindedness, New York: Arno Press in Welshman, J. (2006) Underclass: A History of the Excluded 1880-2000, London: Hambledon Continuum

Rutter, M & Madge, N (1976) Cycles of Disadvantage, London: Heinemann

Shildrick, T., Macdonald, R. Furlong, A., Crow, R. & Roden, J. (2012) Are cultures of worklessness passed down the generations?  York: JRF


“And if you don’t do it, there are gonna be consequences…”

Micahel Caine

Sounding at times more like an East End hard-man than a senior civil servant, Louise Casey gave an interview to the BBC this week for an Inside Out programme about a Prtosmouth police officer returning to his old beat 15 years after ASBOs were introduced.

The lnaguage used in the short interview was, in my opinion, really interesting and was quite aggressive at times, as the quote used in the title of this post shows. Casey also highlighted that the approach taken by the Troubled Families Programme ‘says to the parents, I’m gonna show you and explain to you exactly how to get your kids up and out every single day and then I’m gonna make you do it’ , involves parents ‘taking control’ of their household and that the job is to go through  all of the 120,000 families nationally & make sure every one of those is being targeted for that type of intense change’.

Yet at the same time she states that this approach is also ‘incredibly caring’ and suggests that ‘with the right help, the right support’ parents can improve the situation in their homes. I’d absolutely agree with this, but making people do things, getting ‘in their front room’ and threatening them with ‘consequences‘ for not doing something doesn’t sound like any ‘help’ or ‘support’ that I’m familiar with. One is left in little doubt as to whether the TFP represents a carrot or a stick…

This is a point coincidentally made in article authored by Brid Featherstone, Kate Morris and Sue White called ‘A Marriage Made in Hell: Early Intervention Meets Child Protection’ which I skipped through today. They argue that language matters and suggest that the’intervention’ model needs to be challenged and new options found, perhaps with a focus on family ‘support’. They conclude thus:

We would argue that other ways are to be found rooted in socio-economic analyses of who gets ‘intervened’ with … in unequal societies and in stories  from within paradigms that emphasise family’s capabailities rather than their deficits and workers abilities to cheer on change and encourage hope. Checking under beds and telling people what to do should not be our raison d’etre. If it is, then we are definitely part of the problem!

The full transcript of the Lousie Casey interview is below:

“The government has set out 120,000 families nationally, of which actually Portsmouth accounts for about 550 and the job here is to get into those families and change them.

What we know works is this thing called family intervention and what it does is basically get into the actual family, in their front room and if actually the kids aren’t in school it gets in there and says to the parents I’m gonna show you and explain to you exactly how to get your kids up and out every single day and then I’m gonna make you do it.

And if you don’t do it, there are gonna be consequences.

So it’s quite tough, but it’s also incredibly caring.

And that intense approach works, we know it works because we’ve already looked at studies that show that this works, basically, and also I’ve met countless families that have been turned around.

So, you know, we know that that works, it’s a very full on intense approach and the job is to go through  all of the 120,000 families nationally & make sure every one of those is being targeted for that type of intense change

This is all about making sure the mum is in control of her household and even with a 14 or 15 year old teenager, quite often when they’re looking at, you know, being sent down, right, who do they call for?

Their mum.

So, all this stuff about “I can’t control him” and those sorts of things just isn’t true.

With the right help, the right support, most parents are able to take control of their households, whether that’s two parents or one parent.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-23896776accessed 04/09/2013