Understanding the lives of separating and separated families in the UK

31 May 2017

Lack of data on the lives of separating and separated families is hindering effective policymaking for children and families, according to a new report published by the Nuffield Foundation.

Families are central to social policy, but research and policy has not kept up with the pace at which family structures have become increasingly diverse. Alongside this, we have seen a cessation of a number of key surveys and the narrowing of some administrative data sources as state services have become more rationed or targeted.

The report presents findings from a study to establish the evidence needs in relation to family separation in the UK, and to assess whether the existing data infrastructure is sufficient to meet them. The study team, led by Caroline Bryson of Bryson Purdon Social Research highlight significant shortcomings in the evidence base. Administrative data collected by government departments and agencies includes only a proportion of separated families. Bespoke, largely cross-sectional, studies provide depth on individual issues, but do not look holistically at family separation over time. And the large-scale, multi-purpose longitudinal studies are restricted in the data they can reasonably collect on family separation.

How can the data infrastructure be improved? 

The authors identify that, theoretically, a number of the existing longitudinal surveys could be enhanced. In particular, some specific enhancements to Understanding Society would go a long way towards meeting some of the evidence gaps. They argue this would be a cost-effective approach, but current sample sizes and restrictions on adding interview content mean that these studies cannot feasibly be expected to address all the gaps.

An alternative option would be a bespoke new study of separated families to address the evidence needs. However, the authors highlight the methodological challenges in setting up and running such a study, and the difficulties in securing funding. 

The Foundation's view

Enhancing existing studies would require balanced judgement, but we believe the considerable potential is well worth exploring, and we hope that the ESRC’s Longitudinal Studies Review will provide a framework in which innovative developments of the existing studies are encouraged.

The alternative proposal of developing a new bespoke longitudinal study of separated parents – while enticing – would present many challenges. As such, we encourage an approach that seeks to enhance existing studies in the first instance, before re-assessing the value and challenges of a new study. Both options would require a considerable amount of work to develop and test, as well as time, expertise, and funding. The Foundation will continue to develop its links with the relevant longitudinal study teams and research experts in the field of family separation to help facilitate the conduct of such work.

Download report

Understanding the lives of separating and separated parents in the UK: What evidence do we need?

Summary report (PDF)

Full report (PDF)