Poverty tsar says focus on the under-fives to give all children an equal chance

Writing in the Guardian, poverty ‘tsar’ Frank Field discusses the report he produced for the coalition government on tackling poverty and disadvantage, his frustration with the lack of implementation of the key recommendation and how he is now working locally to try and change things for the better…

In December 2010 I delivered an independent review on poverty and life chances to the government. Officially, my report was hailed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg as “marking a vital moment in the history of our efforts to tackle poverty and disadvantage”.

Some of the review’s recommendations, such as efforts to improve parenting skills, have been acted upon. However, the government has shown little interest in following up the review’s key recommendation, despite the interlinked social ills of child poverty and lack of social mobility being high on the political agenda. Unfortunately we continue to tackle these ills in an outdated manner that ignores a huge amount of evidence-based work.

Take the current poverty measure, which defines a family as being in poverty if its income is less than 60% of the median household income that year. This approach has incentivised a strategy that is heavily focused on reducing child poverty rates in the short term through income transfers. Yet the evidence shows that increasing household income does not automatically protect poorer children against the high risk that they will end up in poverty as adults. There needs to be a broader approach to tackling child poverty that focuses on improving the life chances of poor children.

This links directly to social mobility. The government’s strategy to improve social mobility is heavily centred on schools. Arguably this again ignores the evidence. Last week Ofsted released three reports on the pupil premium, the flagship government scheme to improve educational outcomes for children from low-income families. This academic year £1.25bn was allocated for the programme.

The reports were disappointing. Half of schools surveyed said the scheme made little or no difference to the way they were being operated. Only 10% said it was having a significant effect. Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector, believes that funds were simply being used to “plug the gap” in school budgets.

Schools must use the premium for its stated aim of trying to improve social mobility. But can it even work? A large body of research concludes that schools are highly ineffective in improving the life chances of poorer children. Almost a decade ago Leon Feinstein, a professor at the Institute of Education, found evidence that shows that the success individuals achieve during their adult life can be predicted by their ability level on their first day of primary school. It is in the very early years of life that the gaps in outcomes, which the pupil premium aims to close, appear…

More at: Focus on the under-fives to give all children an equal chance

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Categories: Policy.

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