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Demos: Confident single parents more effective than couples in crisis

Stable single-parented families provide a better home environment for children than rowing married couples finds a new report from the think tank Demos.

Becoming parents for the first time is a difficult transition time for couples, with between 14 and 27 per cent of couples divorcing or separating in the first five years of a child’s life. 

Only up to a third of couples are happier in their relationships after their first child is born (between 18 and 33 per cent).

Evidence showed that highly conflictive relationships can be more detrimental for both children and the parents than divorce or separation. Arguing parents – and the instability associated with this – had a worse effect on children’s outcomes than single-parented children with stable home lives.

The report argues that preparing new parents for relationship problems and providing relationship support can limit the negative impact of family breakdown on children. 

As trusted experts, health visitors should be trained to provide couples with relationship advice to reduce the risk of first-time parents breaking up.

Expanding the role of health visitors would involve going beyond the medical aspects of parenting by giving advice to parents on relationships, parenting style and parent-child interaction, where to seek support and advice and carrying out light-touch screening to identify children that may require extra support. 

Expert advice was found to make parents feel more confident about their parenting ability but they are more likely to take advice from informal networks.

To take advantage of the key opportunity that health visitors have to support parents in the first months of their child’s life, they should be specially trained to fulfil this expanded role and a recruitment drive and new training structures are needed to ensure more high quality candidates take on the crucial role.

Between 1999 and 2009, the total number of full-time health visitors decreased by 19 per cent. In 2009, 245 fewer full-time health visitors were employed than in 2008, leaving numbers of health visitors at an all-time low.

Recommendations from The Home Front include:

Government should not moralise about family formation but support couples through parenthood: Parents and children benefit from strong and stable relationships but not the structure of these relationships, making a married tax allowance a weak tool to improve the lives of children.

Broaden the health visitor role to make health visitors a universal frontline parenting support service. The training that health visitors receive should include building relationships with vulnerable families, assessing parent-child interaction and children’s development, supporting parents to adopt an effective parenting style and giving relationship advice.

Improve the recruitment and retention of health visitors: A specific career track for health visitors should be established with clear progression routes from junior to senior roles. Fast track training courses for university graduates without previous nursing backgrounds should be developed.

Integrate health visiting with local children’s and health services: Health visitors should register a child’s main carers for Sure Start children’s centres on their first visit and data-sharing protocols between Sure Start and health visitors should be established.

Refocus Sure Start according to the principle of progressive universalism: Children’s centres should be open to all and encourage social mixing while targeting additional resources at the most vulnerable families. Informal services that help parents build social networks such as breastfeeding cafes and Stay and Play activities should be open to all. More resource intensive services like parenting programmes could then be targeted at those most in need of support.

Cap health visiting caseloads in disadvantaged areas: Health visitors must have sufficient time to build relationships with vulnerable families but current caseload levels in deprived areas makes this almost impossible.

Kitty Ussher, director of Demos, said:
“Married or not married, a couple or a single parent, stability and warmth is what matters most for children.  Focusing on making homes and communities supportive and consistent environments will improve children’s outcomes far more than a tax break.” 

Jen Lexmond, a parenting expert at Demos said:
“It is the quality of relationships, not the status of them, that is important for parenting. Families clearly benefit from strong, stable partner relationships and we should improve the provision of relationship support at key transition points in couples’ lives. But when relationships breakdown, the focus should be on management, not avoidance at all costs. A married tax allowance - using financial incentives to try to keep couples together - will not help children in any way.

“Health visitors are at the front line of good parenting.  Their role needs to be broadened to support parents in aspects of parenting that go far beyond medical advice.”

The report identifies three key trends that have radically changed the way Britain parents:

A stalling of social mobility: As social mobility has reached a plateau, parenting has become a greater determinant of children’s life chances

An atomised society: As society has become more individualistic, parents may be more isolated and anxious about raising children

A difficult balance of work and care: As the division of labour has changed at work and at home, parents’ roles have become more complex and harder to manage.

Increased legal and social responsibilities placed on parents over the last 20 years have focused government policy on improving parenting.  Extra support from health visitors is crucial in supporting parents to meet these responsibilities successfully.

 Dr Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England said:
“This report shows children benefit and good parenting thrives with a stable and supportive home environment whether parents are single or together. But parents may need support. The new emphasis on health visitors provides an opportunity for a greater parenting support role if they are given time to build meaningful relationships.”


Notes to editors
The number of single-parented households in the UK has more than doubled from 3 per cent in 1971 to 7 per cent in 2008.

2007 Office of National Statistics figures on divorces among parents with children under 16 show that 13.5 per cent of couples divorced within the first five years of their eldest child’s life. 

Figures from the Institute of Fiscal Studies show that 27 per cent of cohabiting couples separate within the first five years of a child’s life. 

Demos polled 1,017 parents (560 mothers, 457 fathers) with SurveyShack and Parents were polled on how they feel about parenting, support services, and the pressures and influences on their lives. is the first video driven parenting website in the world hosting over  3,000 custom made, TV quality, short videos from both mums and experts covering everything a parent could want to know about pregnancy, birth and beyond. 

The 2009 Demos report Building Character detailed how ‘tough love’ parenting with warmth and consistent boundaries was best at developing crucial character capabilities – empathy, application and self-regulation – that have a significant impact on people’s life chances. 

The Home Front is the second report on parenting from the Family and Society Programme at Demos. 

The Home Front employed a mixed research methodology that combined representative attitudinal polling of parents with detailed, micro-level ethnographic observations of family life and parent-child interaction.  This primary research has been supplemented with secondary longitudinal data analysis of the British and Millennium Cohort Studies, a literature and policy review, and a series of case studies with parenting services. 

The Home Front by Jen Lexmond, Louise Bazalgette and Julia Margo is published on Monday 17 January 2010 and will be available to download for free from 

The Home Front was funded by The Office of the Children’s Commissioner.  The Children's Commissioner for England was established under The Children Act 2004 to be the independent voice of children and young people and to champion their interests and bring their concerns and views to the national arena. The Commissioner’s work must take regard of children’s rights (the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) and seek to improve the wellbeing of children and young people.  

The Children’s Commissioner for England is the only national statutory organisation in England with the power to enter places where children are living, other than private homes, to interview them and report on issues from the child’s perspective.  We can also ask organisations about which we have reported to respond to our recommendations and initiate inquiries into cases where they raise issues of public policy relevance to other children. For more information go to

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