How can we tell if a course is being effective? How do we measure changes in communication, in attitudes and in the power base within a family? When a mother comes back to the group and talks about how she involved the children in doing household chores, and what happened, or how she sat and listened instead of solving a problem, you know there is change in the interaction. But we also need to be cautious of parents' own self-reports - researchers have noted (including Patterson, Reid and Dishion, 1992) that what parents report about their interactions with their children does not always correspond with their observed behaviour. (For this reason, we have attempted to include teenagers as well as parents in the 'Parenting Teenagers' Programme.) And for the same reason we were happy for the BBC to install secret cameras (with parents' permission) to film parent-child interaction before, during, and after courses. The results were impressive as shown on the BBC1 programme, "Bringing Up Parents."
Some of the more obvious changes we may want to look for in parents, then, (though these do not include vitally important long-term goals like supporting value-formation) are:
Prior to publication, all the Family Caring Trust courses were developed using action research, each over a two-year period, with continual modifications in the light of feedback from groups drawn from a variety of social and educational backgrounds in Britain and Ireland. Subsequent to publication, the 'Noughts to Sixes' course and the 'Fives to Fifteens' course were tested extensively throughout Britain and Ireland, and evaluated by a number of NHS Trusts and other bodies, for example by Herts Social Services, by Combined Health Care & Chesterton SRB Project (Anne Hobbs, 1999), by East Berkshire NHS (in co-operation with the Dept. of Community Studies at the University of Reading, Petford, 1997), by Lothian Primary Care NHS Trust (Byatt-Smith, McCombie & Barnes, 2000) by Barnardos South Lakeland Family Support Service (in co-operation with the University of Leeds School of Continuing Education, Frost & Ryden July 2001), and by the Down-Lisburn NHS Trust (in cooperation with the Dept of Psychology at the University of Ulster, Long, 2001).
All evaluations to date have been positive about the user-friendliness of the courses and the beneficial effects on the family life of participants. The Trust for the Study of Adolescence, in evaluating the use of Family Caring Trust's Parenting Teenagers' course by YMCA (Oct.2000) had this to say: "These materials were generally rated very highly and were particularly valued by people who had not run courses before, as the materials were structured and clear to follow. This is an important finding, as many materials currently being developed focus on other issues. The finding that the majority of these workers offering courses were positive about the materials they used is in many respects an unexpected and welcome finding."
Criticisms of the video input resulted in the production of revised videos, but updating videos on a continuous basis is a costly and unnecessary expense as a video is peripheral to the group dynamics which are at the heart of the learning process. There is continual updating of the accompanying books.
East Berkshire NHS/University of Reading
An evaluation of the use of the 0-6 and 5-15 Programmes was carried out in co-operation with the Dept of Community Studies at the University of Reading by Chris Petford, Parenting Project Co-ordinator for East Berkshire Community Trust. 33 health visitors and 10 school health sisters co-operated with the action research project involving 13 courses run within the project timeframe. The main findings were that the courses were effective in meeting parents' expectations and needs. Parents liked the fact that the courses were part of a universal service and thus not stigmatising. The referral through health visitors and school health sisters added to this acceptance of the 'normal.' Issues around time and creche facilities did cause problems, but both health visitors and school health sisters found that the courses provided an effective and valuable tool to help them in their health promotion role.
Down-Lisburn NHS Trust/University of Ulster
The results of the standardised tests used by the Dept of Psychology at the University of Ulster show a significant decrease in both clinical anxiety and depression in parents attending the 5-15 course. There was also an increase in coping strategies, parents shouted less, and they were calmer and had more energy by the end of a course. Further testing 3 and 9 months later confirmed that these changes were internalised by parents. One negative result, however, was that there was no significant change in how parents saw themselves or in their enjoyment of parenting. This is not surprising because, unlike the 0-6 and 'Parenting Teenagers' courses, there had been little emphasis in the 5-15s course on parents taking care of themselves. That emphasis on parents' own needs is now included in the revised Handbook, and the Planning section at the end of each session also now focuses on adults as well as on children.
University of Leeds/Barnardo's South Lakeland Family Support Service
The University of Leeds School of Continuing Education conducted an independent evaluation of the Barnardo's South Lakeland Family Support Service (which uses the Family Caring Trust courses) in 2001. The before and after surveys revealed a marked increase in parental confidence after completing a course, and this was also supported by qualitative responses. Parents reported improvement in their parenting and a reduction in stress. A strong recommendation was to make the provision of parenting support much more widespread and cost effective by providing training and support to new volunteers.