The Swindon Family LIFE Programme

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • General resources
  • Local area early intervention strategies

Basic details


Organisation submitting example

Swindon Borough Council Children Services and partners (Swindon Children’s Trust)

Local authority/local area:

Swindon Children’s Trust

The context and rationale

The Family LIFE Programme is a service that has been developed with families living in Swindon, along with Swindon Borough Council, Strategic Health Authority, Primary Care Trust, Wiltshire Police (Swindon Partners) and Participle, a social enterprise that works with partners to create new services. The partners worked together for over 9 months undertaking research and development, including ten weeks running a prototype service with four families. 

We wanted to develop a new approach to working with families facing complex and multiple challenges that went beyond the approach taken in Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) and that was relevant to Swindon. The intention was to find out what could bring about long term sustainable positive change, not just for ‘problem families’ but also for other members of the community and government services.

We wanted a new understanding of families’ lives, and of the complexities and impact of the relationships between:
• the issues that families face;
• existing government interventions and processes;
• a set of shared characteristics within the families that combine to create what we have called the ‘chronic crisis’ in which these families live.

We know that in Swindon:
• the current direct cost of government interventions and provisions around a family in chronic crisis is conservatively estimated at up to £250,000 per year;
• there are estimated to be between 60 and 100 families living in the most extreme levels of chronic crisis and there have been no positive changes for these families through current government interventions.

Our focus in developing the Family LIFE Programme with families and service providers was to: 
• build something radically different that would produce outcomes wanted by many families, their neighbours, wider communities and government services;
• provide greater chances for long term sustainable outcomes in health, education, future prospects and stability for families;
• find a way of using government resources so that they become an investment in people’s lives.

Risk factors for the families include (but are not limited to): mental health issues, physical disabilities, substance misuse, domestic violence, poverty, worklessness, lack of education, lack of skills and capabilities, overcrowding at home, and contact with multiple public services.

Government intervention for families with complex needs has traditionally focused on some or many of the risk factors above, with families engaging with many different professionals in any given week over a long period of time. But breaking through the chronic nature of issues has proved difficult and, as a result, families remain in chronic crisis for generations. It is like a gyroscope – on the outside of the family is all the activity of the system, yet on the inside, for the family, nothing moves or changes. Ultimately, the activity of the system maintains the status quo and creates a barrier for change.

The practice

By shifting the focus from problems and needs to capabilities and opportunities, our work supports families through a developmental process that the families themselves lead that enables change and growth. 

In the Programme development stage, we worked with twelve families for the research, four families to build the prototype. Frontline workers also collaborated in the design of the programme.

The three key approaches in the Programme are:
• a team of people working in new ways and building new purposeful relationships between families, workers and the community;
• co-building capabilities for families and workers to release innovation and resource in the family, the community and government services relevant to people’s lives;
• building local living through:
• social networks;
• skills training opportunities;
• enterprise opportunities;
• peer to peer learning.

In the first 16 weeks of the Programme, four families received intensive support from a multi-agency and multi-disciplinary team of staff from across the Police, Children’s Services, and Housing. The team were involved in very practical tasks with families (e.g. gardening, decorating, shopping, cooking, managing their home budgets) and this has enabled families to start to develop skills and knowledge to improve their lives, and to be able to make positive choices for themselves and their families. It also gave the families and the workers an opportunity to really get to know each other, and a chance to talk about their lives in an informal setting, creating the basis for a new loving and purposeful relationship.

Desired outcomes included:
• reduction in domestic violence;
• improved mental health from families supporting each other and learning to listen to and understand each other better;
• sufferers of mental health issues engaging in social activities and work opportunities on which they had previously given up ;
• better choices by families in how they spend their time, including eating better, being more active and more social;
• individuals seeking help for drug and alcohol abuse;
• parents developing skills in how to support themselves and their children emotionally;
• children desiring to return to school after long periods of exclusion;
• adults seeking employment and/or training after long periods of unemployment;
• families being more active and engaged in community activities.

The multi-agency intervention has been provided to 18 families with complex needs who have been supported at a cost of £337,700 or £18,761 per family.

Evidencing your practice has made a difference to children, young people and families

After 9 months of the project, a range of outcomes have already been delivered. Some of the ‘softer’ (but no less important) outcomes include:

• families engaging with the LIFE team and building honest relationships, allowing the team to uncover the families’ underlying issues and offer the most relevant support;
• parents learning how to address the consequences of their actions, how to take responsibility taking it out on themselves or their children;
• families expressing their feelings for each other for the first time in their lives;
• families building positive relationships with neighbours.

Health Outcomes for Families (actual cost savings tend to occur many years after the event, but the goal is to move from promoting good health to family engagement in good health) Our initial cost avoidance is estimated to be in the region of 300k for the first 15 months of delivery of the project
• One person stopped smoking.
• One family decided to only smoke outside.
• One family visited the dentist for the first time.
• One person started a home cooking enterprise, delivering 100 healthy meals a day, paid for by the local community.
• An anorexic daughter put on weight and started talking about food.
• One family went to the supermarket with an ex-health worker and learned how to shop in a more healthy manner.

Family Stability Outcomes
• One young person remained with his parent instead of being accommodated in residential care, as was planned at the start of the project.
• Two children no longer need to have a Child Protection Plan and are now children in need.

• Two threatened evictions have been prevented.

Anti Social Behaviour
• Involvement of the Anti Social Behaviour Team in one family has ended and disputes with neighbours have ended in two families.

Benefits evidenced for Swindon Partners
• A reduced dependency on current service intervention by families.
• Families consistently meeting Child Protection Plans and engaging with service providers to make real changes in their lives.
• Avoidance of expensive interventions such as evictions, re-housing, home tutoring (rather than being at school), children being taken into care.
• Cessation of domestic violence and anti-social behaviour.
• Re-training of workers enabling them to understand how to help families to build healthy, independent lives.

As a result of the new way of working with families in chronic crisis, through a team of workers who work intensively with the family, there are immediate opportunities to stop delivering services that do not actually support the family, but instead add to the crisis in families’ lives.

There is a new emphasis on addressing health issues, where adults in the family may have become ill due to long term poor lifestyle choices and when children continue unhealthy patterns into adulthood. This is relevant to addressing both physical and mental health issues in families.

One of the principal aims of the Programme was to develop the different way of working to ensure that the proportion of time that social workers spend in direct work with families against the proportion of time that they spend on paperwork could be turned on it’s head, from the current 80:20 (paperwork:direct work with families) to 20:80 (paperwork:direct work with families). This reduction in bureaucracy was to be achieved whilst still fulfilling statutory duties and effectively managing risk. It has been managed in part through the introduction of a ‘data downloader’, who works with the Family LIFE team each week to record their observations. We are also creating a new web resource to support greater efficiency and effectiveness, which will also enable increased involvement of families in recording their own progress and allow greater transparency.

The critical factor in the development of the Family LIFE Programme has been senior leadership sign up across the Partnership, with a commitment to getting properly involved in the Programme. We have got to know the families, seen and heard first-hand the difficulties that they face and the barriers that they find so difficult to overcome.

The Programme has demonstrated that changes in how services are delivered to families in chronic crisis are essential, that a new way of working is possible, and that it can produce new outcomes for families, workers and communities. 

The new way of working, through a team of workers working intensively with families and being very closely involved in every aspect of the lives of the families, has shown that it is possible to build new, loving and purposeful relationships, and to support people to build their own capabilities. 

The Programme is being extended to other families in Swindon.

The Programme had clear performance measures, including cost savings, in place at the start, and these were monitored closely through the initial phase of the Programme. While some measurable outcomes have been described in Sections 2 and 3, other impacts of the Programme will only be measurable in the longer term.

Helping others to replicate your practice

The introduction of the Programme has initiated a new and innovative way of working with families in chronic crisis. Performance measures were in place at the start of the programme, and other benefits that arose during the Programme were evidenced in the evaluation at the end of the prototype phase.

For Swindon Partners, key benefits are evidenced in Section 3. The Family LIFE Team have been able to take on a supportive and ‘brokering’ role for families in their dealing with services. It is clear that some council and other services are very complex, difficult to understand, and may compound the difficulties that some families face. The team are able to help families, including children and young people, to understand what council and other services expect from them, and to take time to explain what needs to change within families in order to meet the expectations of those services.

In some families, personal finance/budgeting has been a significant issue, and has escalated over a period of time. The team have been able to work through issues, help the family to understand and claim the benefits to which they are entitled, and to enable the family to manage their finances month to month. Adults have been encouraged and assisted to seek employment after long terms of unemployment. Many different agencies have been involved through the Programme, and there is now a new understanding across many government services that a different approach is necessary to ensure that families can clearly understand the different systems, so that they will help families rather than make their lives more difficult.

Developing new social networks within the community has been a focus for the Programme, and the building of positive new relationships has made a significant difference to the families, with a direct impact on levels of domestic violence, with sufferers of mental health issues engaging in social activities and work opportunities, families learning to listen and to understand each other, families building positive relationships with neighbours, families making changes and taking pride in their homes.

Our hot tip would be to be bold enough to work to build something radically different and to find a way to use government resources as an investment in people’s lives, rather than mainly on a risk management system.


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