Much of my concern about family breakdown (father absence, poorly functioning family relationships and divorce/separation) stems from the long-term effect it can have on the children involved as every child needs safe, stable and nurturing relationships if they are to thrive. Research on Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, highlights how children and young people’s mental health is correlated with the quality of their relationships, particularly within their family. This research shows that parental separation, experiencing neglect or abuse and being a witness to domestic abuse can all be traumatic for children and preventing them where possible should be a priority.
Children without reliable relationships are more likely to experience behavioural problems and underachieve at school. They have higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use and struggle to find a job. They also have poorer physical and mental health and are more likely to become a parent at an early age. Gangs often provide the substitute families – and father figures – they crave but this can make them incredibly vulnerable to getting caught up in serious violence, county lines and drugs. Fewer than half of the people in our prisons grew up with both their parents, a quarter of then spent time in care and almost a third suffered abuse.
I emphasise in speeches and publications, and in my involvement with the McAlister review of Children’s Social Care, that children in local authority care and care leavers would greatly benefit from a ‘prevention pipeline’ approach. We need to prevent children from coming into care and prevent the care system being a conveyer belt into crime, homelessness and despair.
From my own experience I know boarding schools can prevent children on the edge of care from needing to leave their birth families. They can also be transformational for the social mobility and life chances of disadvantaged children.
There are certain groups of disadvantaged children which tend to be neglected in public policy, such as poor white boys, whose educational attainment and access to higher education has been low in comparison with children from other ethnicities for well over a decade. This is finally beginning to be recognised but there is much more that needs to be done.
I also want to improve care and educational provision for children with genetic conditions, such as 22q11 syndrome, and am an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group which raises awareness of the additional issues they face.