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Oxford researchers find answers through conducting rigorous trials of parenting intervention programmes from around the world, creating more effective intervention schemes for the most troubled families in the UK.

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We’ve all heard of them: families who have never worked, in and out of prison, addiction, with low social skills: families on the edge of society. Media images can cement assumptions: a child or young person, a hooded gang member maybe, spending their time on street corners, drinking, smoking, shouting, and swearing. Vandalising the school they should be attending, and terrorising the neighbourhood they live in. UK governments have tried to target this small group of people, with limited success. But would it be more effective to prevent these problems earlier in a child’s life, and should we be looking overseas for solutions to our home-grown problems? Research conducted by Professor Frances Gardner and her team at the Centre for Evidence Based Intervention in the Department of Social Policy and Intervention shows that we can find answers if we look outside the country.

Persistent antisocial behaviour in children is a major social issue, with public costs estimated at £250,000 per child by the time they reach 27. Gardner’s research demonstrates that parenting programmes, originally designed for other countries, significantly reduce antisocial behaviour in the UK as well, and has encouraged practitioner uptake of these programmes. Between 1999 and 2013, Gardner and her team undertook a series of randomised controlled trials to test the effectiveness of parenting interventions, and which were most useful for the UK context. Straight away it became clear that successful interventions, developed in America, but delivered by well-trained staff in Oxfordshire voluntary sector services, were also effective in reducing antisocial behaviour and improving parenting in low-income families experiencing marked difficulties with their child. A second trial, led by Professor Judy Hutchings at Bangor University, focused on earlier prevention of behaviour problems, replicated these outcomes in a larger, multi-agency study within North Wales ‘Sure Start’ services. Gardner also found that, contrary to expectations, effects were just as strong for the most disadvantaged families.

Gardner's research was pivotal in helping persuade the Cabinet Office to set up the National Academy of Parenting Practitioners (NAPP). Her trial was the first in the world to show that parenting programmes could be effective in reducing severe antisocial behaviour, outside the narrow confines of child mental health services, showing that the voluntary sector could do just as good a job with difficult cases...influenced by these findings, the government awarded £35 million to NAPP to disseminate evidence-based parenting programmes across the voluntary sector; [this is] estimated to have benefited over 150,000 children. - Founder and research director of NAPP

These discoveries took place against a background of limited evidence-based policy on parenting interventions. Gardner’s research helped change the agenda towards interventions grounded in rigorous empirical evidence, giving practitioners genuine chances to change outcomes for children and their families. Her research contributed to an influential government report, Support from the Start (2004), and then in 2006 she became a member of the expert advisory panel for heath-led parenting interventions for the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.

Gardner’s research was a key contributor to the introduction of the National Academy of Parenting Practitioners (NAPP) in November 2007, which aimed to ‘transform the quality and size of the parenting workforce’, to improve parenting and children’s well-being by training large cohorts of staff in evidence-based parenting interventions, particularly those tested in Gardner’s UK trials.

And the research is being fed back into policy and practice in other countries. Gardner was appointed to the Board of ‘Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development’, a longstanding US violence prevention organisation whose role is to review and make decisions about which programmes qualify for the influential Blueprints ‘best practice’ list widely used by US practitioners. She has also helped to found WHO’s Parenting for Lifelong Health’ initiative, which together with partners UNICEF and UNODC, aims to adapt, test and disseminate effective, low-cost parenting interventions in low and middle income countries. 

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Department of Social Policy and Intervention

Professor Frances Gardner

Themes