21st century campaign against child poverty

14 October 2010

Frank Field MP today delivered a lecture at Canterbury University ('The Next Stages of Welfare Reform') in which he put forward the case for a radical redirection to Britain’s 100 year old anti poverty strategy.  Frank Field said:

“The most distressing, not to say horrifying, finding that I have come across, when reading the research material for this Review, is that the life chances of most poorer children are decided by the time of their fifth birthday.  From the ability test taken at age five, we are able to predict the positions children will occupy by the time they are in their twenties.
This finding will be the central driving force behind the report which will be delivered to the Prime Minister in December.  If life chances are so indelibly struck for most children by this age then, for any government wishing to rebuild the ladders for social mobility as a foundation for long-term change, as well as to tackle the root cause of long-term adult poverty, it must commit itself to a radical overhaul of a whole sweep of early-years policies.
A central assumption underlying the report is a belief that the commitment of adults to parenting has significantly changed over the past fifty years or so.  I do not have the time to spell out this evening the reason why an increasing number of British parents have moved from the tried and tested “tough love” approach to parenting to more informal and casual arrangements, but it is clear that such a move has occurred.
The losers from this move have been children, and particularly poorer children.  A number of research reports show that children are more likely to thrive if they come from homes where parents lay down clear boundaries for behaviour but who, within these boundaries, nurture their children with love, affection and interest.  What might seem to some people little valued activities, such as reading with their child, and talking with them to improve their vocabulary, pays huge dividends when their children start school.
Here is the rub.  The research reports show that children present a huge range of cognitive, social and emotional and physical skills, by the age of three which are, all too sadly, confirmed at five. 
It is this inequality that determines life’s outcomes which the report I will be presenting to the Prime Minister calls on the Government to counter.  To do so effectively means that we need to move beyond the traditional anti poverty strategy of putting too great an emphasis on transferring income to poorer families, believing that this, by itself, will have a miraculous effect on the life chances of poorer children.  It won’t.
Nowhere will I be saying that money is not important.  Of course it is.  But I will be arguing that it is a blunt and inadequate weapon against the entrenched inequalities in life chances that we now see in children before they pass through the school gate for the first time.
In the emergency Budget in June George Osborne increased the child tax credit allowance by £1.2 billion. For that sum the work of Children’s Centres could have been doubled.
The report I will be presenting makes the case for government to broaden its objectives and to focus much more intently on how best we might open up a more positive future to poorer children which is now firmly closed. 
It is one thing to persuade a government to adopt what we will be proposing – a new measurement of life opportunities for children at age five.  It is quite another to ask the Government to refashion policies and money behind making this new measurement a driver of government policy. Yet this whole exercise will be arid unless the Government is prepared to make the early years its priority.
So why, you might ask, am I talking in these terms now, when the final report will be delivered to the Prime Minister at Christmas – still two months away?  I think the reason will be obvious to you. 
The Government is now reviewing all aspects of public expenditure and will be prioritising its budgets.  Those aspects which the government sees as the least important may well face the axe.  So this evening I am making a plea that the one area where investment is required is in services for those first five or so years of life.
In a progress report to the Prime Minister last month I suggested that these years should be known as the Foundation Years.  We thereby gain three clear steps to our education system – the Foundation Years, leading into the school years, leading on to further higher and continuing education.
In the two progress reports I have already submitted to the Prime Minister, I make out the case for the Government to use the report to sketch out a new vision of a society the Government invites the country to create.  It will be one that is based on expanding the life opportunities of the poorest so that the traditional supply routes to poverty are most firmly cut.  If poverty is to be countered by the policy of social mobility then the ladders out of poverty must be constructed so that the very youngest, and poorest, of our citizens start that climb long before they ever reach school.
I hope you begin to see that this is however not simply yet another top-down vision.  It can only work if parents themselves see that they can be the agents of their children’s success.  The range of policies that I will therefore be advocating, and which I wish to see protected and then enhanced by the end of the parliament, will be parent-led – with support – over the first three years of life.  Then, as children begin to take the advantage of nursery education, a new partnership will need to be struck between the responsibility of parents and the outcomes that nursery education will deliver for their children.
This will entail using the Government’s ideas on the Pupil Premium as the driving forces for change during the first five years – and not just for when children start at school.  Then, as I have shown, it is too late to open up the life chances of poorer children.
Success in expanding life chances will also entail a radical transformation of Children Centres into a service of which all families see the relevance, but is one which much more clearly than at present, concentrates most of its help on those families who would benefit most from its work.”