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How we change with families

30 January 2024

If you’re browsing the magazine aisle this month, pick up the March edition of Good Housekeeping and you’ll find an article marking the start of our exciting new partnership with the publication.

“The Changing Shape of Family” charts how family life has changed and is still changing, with recent years seeing huge levels of upheaval and uncertainty. Both Good Housekeeping and Family Action are organisations with long memories – the Good Housekeeping Institute celebrates its centenary this year and here at Family Action we have over 150 years under our belt, so this is not the first time we’ve witnessed great changes in society. In this blog we explore how our past informs our present, and the future to come. 

Cost of living crisis 

For those of us feeling the squeeze, the current cost-of-living crisis can feel almost unprecedented, but Family Action’s roots grew out of similar circumstances.  

The London of 1869 observed by our founder Octavia Hill saw poverty, unstable employment and housing shortages – echoing today’s high rents, spiralling mortgage costs and zero hours contracts.  Acts of charity in the Victorian period are well documented but they were often uncoordinated, unfocused and aid didn’t always reach those they should.  

It was this situation that led to the formation of the Charity Organisation Society (COS), which later evolved into the Family Welfare Association and later Family Action. The COS focused on coordinating charity activity to ensure it was received by those who need it most. 

We responded to those concerns back then with the launch of employment enquiry offices to tackle insecure employment and undertook a census of poverty across England to outline the scale of the problem. Then, in the 1930s, we set up the country’s first Citizens Advice Bureau to give families access to the information and support they needed to overcome challenges.  

Into the present 

This legacy of support continues today in our grants services. From helping to keep people out of the workhouses back in the 19th century, to essentials like beds and bedding in the modern world, our organisation has changed with the times, but our heart is in the same place.  

Thanks to the launch of the NHS in the wake of World War 2, we wouldn’t recognise the state of public healthcare back in Victorian times and the regular outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis. However, the COVID-19 pandemic presented us with a challenge to life and livelihoods that we needed to mount an emergency response to. Sadly, this may not be the last pandemic we live through.  

We have been active in public healthcare since the beginning, creating the Sanitary Aid Committee in 1882 to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, and this commitment has continued into the present day, as our Emergency Grants and Survival and Recovery funds were vital during COVID, supporting families through changes in their employment circumstances.  

Why food is fundamental 

Food insecurity and malnutrition are key issues that existed in the Victorian era, have never really gone away, but have resurfaced to affect more and more people in recent times. We often think of physical health when we discuss food but food insecurity impacts on the mental health of children and their parents/carers too, as well as having a negative effect on their learning and development.

Once again, in the modern era Family Action has addressed these challenges with the launch of two services in 2018, which continue now.

Our Food On Our Doorstop (FOOD) programme provides quality discounted food for families in around 40 locations, while the National School Breakfast Programme (NSBP) ensures over 350,000 young people each day have access to the healthy, nutritious breakfasts they need in order to thrive in up to 2,700 schools around the country.

Supporting the experts 

As well as the NSBP, Family Action has also developed programmes that support young people in schools, like our Lincolnshire BOSS service, and we work with young carers and run mentoring programmes such as Friendship Works, so we’re familiar with many of the challenges children and young people are facing.

As society’s understanding of neurodiversity has increased, so too has the need to support young people and their families to get their needs met in environments that are not always set up to be supportive. We see families on the frontline here, hearing often from professionals that parents and carers are the real experts where their children are concerned.  

Though experts regarding their own needs, trying to navigate the system to get support is a different matter. Family Action is one of the largest host providers of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Information, Advice and Support Services (SENDIASS) in the country and we help people access the information they need, give impartial advice on the complex and changeable legal landscape and, importantly, provide a listening ear for parents and carers. 

Changing family make up 

Emotional overwhelm for parents and carers is a real issue and since 2019 we’ve been running our free, national helpline, FamilyLine, which allows families to talk through the pressures facing them in confidence over telephone, email, text or webchat, no matter where they are. 

Such technological advances would have been unthinkable for the first families supported by the Charitable Organisation Society, but they enable Family Action to be there for so many more people through all kinds of change, challenge and crisis.

While we specialise in getting alongside people right at the heart of local communities, working through some really complex challenges, we can also offer more universal support through our FamilyLine, online articles, information packs and social media platforms, which can provide broader information that’s useful for all families. 

Despite huge advances in technology over the past 150 years, however, it’s perhaps attitudes and beliefs that have changed the most. The British Social Attitudes survey shows how rates of disapproval for ‘non traditional’ family behaviours have dropped sharply in recent years.

Though there were certainly single parents in the 19th century this was driven largely by higher general mortality rates. Active choices on how to form a family or empathetic support for people who found themselves in circumstances that went against conventional social attitudes about gender roles were sorely lacking. Even surprisingly forward-looking Victorian system of benefits and maintenance payments at the time reflected the attitudes of the time about women’s being unable to support themselves and men’s role in the workplace.  

Victorian values reached beyond their era and in part lie behind the scandal of forced adoptions and abandoned children, the impact of which continue to be felt into our own day. The specialist staff of PAC-UK, an adoption support agency who came into Family Action in 2018, support over 5,000 people affected by adoption and permanency every year  including many birth families and adopted people impacted by forced adoptions during this era. The service’s Family Connect digital service also supports people who were adopted or raised in state care to explore their personal history find out more about their origins. Through national awareness campaigns and groundbreaking research projects, including The Big Consult, PAC-UK continues the discussion by amplifying the often lesser heard voices in adoption – birth families and adopted people – to ensure their lived experiences are heard and influence positive change in our more enlightened era.

Showing 2.4 the door 

We recognise that families come in all shapes and sizes, and we’ve been really pleased to see more attention recently focussed on kinship carers, who deserve more recognition nationally. Special Guardianship is a form of kinship care and gives parental legal responsibility to someone (most commonly a friend or family member, very often a grandparent) who cares for a child because their parents aren’t able to. As well as supporting Special Guardians throughout our services we also introduced the Special Guardianship Support Service to support these families.  

Together with Good Housekeeping we are representing and celebrating the erosion of the outdated idea that family means a heterosexual couple with 2.4 children. At Family Action, we believe there’s no ‘right’ way to be a family, it’s the quality of relationships that matter, and the support we offer reflects this. 

Find out more about the history of Family Action, and how we have supported families throughout 150 years of social change.