Attlee Memorial Lecture at Haileybury School

16 September 2010

Frank Field today gave the 19th Attlee Memorial Lecture, held at Haileybury School. The annual lecture honours Haileybury’s famous alumnus, Clement Attlee, who left Haileybury in 1901 and went on to become Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951.

Mr Field spoke about the second Poverty Review report that he has submitted to the Prime Minister. Here is a summary of what Mr Field said:

“Over the past forty years, ever since I joined the Child Poverty Action Group, my central political concern has been how to advance the life chances of the poor.  This concern continued as my primary interest when I became the MP for Birkenhead in 1979.  To no other subject have I devoted more time in listening, observing, reading, discussing and thinking.
 
Over these past four decades my thinking has developed.  I began at CPAG by emphasising the importance of money to the exclusion of all other factors in determining people’s chances to achieve their best selves.
 
During the Thatcher years I began to question the passivity of the welfare state for those people of working age who were outside the labour market. 
 
More recently research has suggested that life’s race is all too often determined, for good or ill, before we start school, let alone at the point we enter the labour market.
 
That is why I jumped at the Prime Minister’s opportunity to lead an Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances and I want to use this opportunity tonight to go over some of the emerging conclusions that I have presented to the Prime Minister this week in a second progress report.
 
The debate is once again on the move.  There is now a consensus developing between academics, practitioners and policy makers on the enormous importance of the earliest years of life to later life opportunities and thereby to intergenerational change.  Here is the first principle on which the Review will be built.
 
Measuring poverty
 
We have now enshrined in an Act of Parliament a set of four poverty measures.  But these definitions drive a focus on income transfers in the present day alone.  I believe a much broader strategy is required if we are to give greater equality of opportunity to people regardless of their background. 
 
The focus on income transfers has helped many families, particularly after the sharp rise in child poverty in the 1980s and 1990s.  The policy of increasing child benefit and introducing child tax credits has had an important impact in reducing the numbers of children living on low income. 
 
However, even before the current recession, progress on this front had stalled and it is now clear that the current fiscal position means that this strategy, of fiscal redistribution alone, is no longer sustainable.
 
Moreover – and this goes to the heart of what I will be saying in the Review – the evidence shows clearly that income alone is far from being the most important driver of future life chances. 
 
The vast majority of parents set out to achieve the very best for their children, but by the age of five, children from poorer homes already have on average much lower levels of social and cognitive development than those from better off backgrounds. However, the fact that they are poor is not the main factor in play. Research shows that income alone is not the main driver of the huge achievement gaps that we see between children from richer and poorer homes when they finish their secondary schooling.
 
Attainment at 5
 
A second principle on which the Review is based is that the evidence shows schools are not successful in closing these gaps.  A child with poor cognitive development at the age of five is, a full two decades later, less than a third as likely to have progressed to A levels and nearly six times as likely to end up with no real qualifications at all, when compared to a child with good development at age five.
 
So what happens to children in the first five years of life matters as much as, if not more than, what happens in schools, yet around seven times as much public money is spent on educating children in schools than on helping parents during critical pre-school years.
 
A New Approach
 
The evidence we are amassing in the Review provides a powerful argument for a different policy focus, both on social and economic terms.  We need to focus in the future much less on income transfers, although these will still be important, and much more on targeted intervention to narrow the gaps in children’s development in those early, pre-school years. 
 
I am talking here of the bottom 30 per cent of children ranked by achievement. Action to help this group to acquire skills equal to those children from the most successful working class homes, let alone the very richest, would create much greater equality of opportunity for all children, regardless of their background. 
 
We need, in particular, to raise the levels of skills, self-confidence and aspiration of less advantaged children so that they are more equal to the levels of their more advantaged peers when they begin school.  Without action here we will be condemning many poor children to, at best a life on low pay, and at worse unemployment and the evils of drink, drugs, domestic violence and debt all of which can drag families down in adult life.
 
It would also help kick-start the stalled social mobility which is such a feature of present day Britain.
 
In order to do this I believe we need a new measurement that centres on future life chances and opportunities – a new index of life opportunities. 
 
This would supplement the existing financial measures, and would be used to measure skills as children become ready to begin their first days at school. It would be concerned therefore with whether children have achieved the basic levels of development for a 5 year old and the home environment characteristics necessary to succeed first in school, and then later in life.
 
Such an index would allow governments, and indeed society as a whole, to drive the policy interventions that will make a real difference to future life opportunities for today’s children.  It should be based on the indictors that the evidence shows us make the most difference to long-run development: social and emotional development, cognitive and language skills, communication skills and wellbeing.
 
Foundation Years – a new educational world
 
Underpinning this, and to show how we might genuinely drive progress in extending life opportunities, our report will sketch out for the first time what a reformed early years provision or, as we believe it should be called, Foundation Years, might look like, and how it would be understood by parents, and the wider public. 
 
The Foundation Years will take their place in the public comprehension of the educational life cycle so that there will be the:
 
·        Foundation Years – from conception to the age of five
·        School Years – primary, junior and secondary – with transition to work or
·        Further Higher and Continuing Education.
 
We now know far more about the way children develop and what is most important in their young lives to make sure we give them the best possible start. 
 
This isn’t rocket science.  It is where hard evidence comes together with common sense. 
 
Good parenting and home learning environments matter most to young children’s eventual life chances; more than extra money and more than schools. 
 
We need to harness this understanding to make the difference at the time it matters most, and make sure all our young people have the opportunity to develop into their best selves.”