Sir Peter Fahy Delivers the Cockcroft Rutherford Lecture

EVENT: Cockcroft Rutherford Lecture

AUTHOR: Sir Peter Fahy

The annual Cockcroft Rutherford Lecture is the flagship event for alumni and friends of The University of Manchester. This year’s lecture (which can be viewed in full, here) was delivered by Retrak CEO, Sir Peter Fahy. The theme of his lecture was the importance of the best start in life for children around the world.

It is often striking how policymakers accept robustly researched concepts but struggle to put them into practice. In the Cockcroft Rutherford lecture this year I described how my work as Chief Constable of Greater Manchester and now Chief Executive of the street child charity Retrak had both shown me the fundamental importance of attachment theory and therefore of early family life.

In Greater Manchester analysis has shown how disproportionate public service demand comes from families and individuals with complex needs caught in a cycle of poor parenting and generational underachievement and it is exactly the same pattern behind the vast number of children living on the street in Africa.

Attachment theory – the role of research in guiding effective policy

Attachment theory has been shown to apply in all cultures and demonstrates how the ability of a baby to make a secure loving emotional attachment is key to all future development and health. Children with poor attachment struggle to make positive relationships and suffer a slower rate of brain growth leading to poor educational achievement.

Domestic violence is the thread that runs through many of these families and it is well researched that most abusers grew up in abusive relationships. This poor attachment can often be detected in the maternity ward in terms of the mothers not making eye contact with their babies. The importance of early years is well known but the returns on investment take many years to come through and so are beyond the current political horizons.

The complex needs of these families cannot be tackled when professionals and local and state institutions are organised in professional silos with different often competing funding and performance mechanisms.  Public services need to be joined up at the neighbourhood level with a focus on working with local people not in judgment of them something only really possible with the degree of devolution now granted   to Greater Manchester.

Community and equality – here and across the globe

Community can be seen as an overused word but the concept is vital to family and societal development. Active healthy communities create capacity to support struggling families and the vulnerable and set norms and boundaries of behaviour. Many writers however are highlighting the growing social and economic isolationism in the US, France and the UK with those groups who have benefitted from globalisation and immigrant communities who service them squeezing out the traditional working classes who are becoming more resentful.

In African cities the contrast between the shiny hotels and office blocks and the shanty towns is stark. However in Manchester the gap between the lauded business and cultural city centre developments and the estates geographically adjacent to them is becoming equally stark and one of the features of this inequality is the poor educational achievement which underlies many of the economic weaknesses of Greater Manchester.

Globalisation has some economic benefits but is undermining many of the values which used to bind traditional communities. In Manchester combined with digital developments it has eroded many jobs and the sharp decline in working man’s clubs, churches and trade unions also weaken community life.

Across the world we are seeing the biggest mass movement of people ever experienced driven by weaknesses in the rural economy and internal conflict but also by the fact that increasing access to the internet means that people in Africa can now see the apparent wealth in Europe and who can blame them for wanting some of it. Building bigger walls and higher fences will not stop this and as legal migration becomes more difficult, trafficking and modern slavery prosper leading to mass drowning in the Mediterranean and harrowing stories of abuse and extortion.

Giving all young people a future – the policy challenge

In Manchester and Kampala the underlying policy challenges are the same. How to move social investment into early years development recognising the crucial importance of early positive attachment and how to override the political appetite for quick results:

  • How to develop new models of place based public service integration which recognise the complex needs of vulnerable families with a heavy emphasis on releasing community capacity.
  • How to tackle growing economic and social isolationism locally and globally through strengthening community entities, and
  • Pushing power down to the local level with new economic models to provide hope to the growing number of disaffected young men potentially drawn to differing forms of criminal or political extremism.

As is so often the case the answer seem both simple and complex as the importance of parenting, strong families supported by active cohesive communities have been recognised across the centuries and are features of many of the traditional tribal African societies and traditional Manchester working class communities now threatened by globalisation.

If we continue to weaken the building blocks of attachment, family and community we will see more children suffer.