• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 12th January, 2011

Frank Fields' test on poverty

A damning critique of massive public spending as the sole means to tackle poverty and the idea that poverty is caused only by lack of money has come from Frank Field, Labour MP and former welfare reform minister in Tony Blair’s government, in a new report.Field says that even were there the money available, an alternative strategy to abolish child poverty is needed. “I have increasingly come to view poverty as a much more subtle enemy than purely lack of money”, he comments. He goes on to say that the Labour government aim of abolishing child poverty by 2020 with massive transfer measures has stalled and cannot be sustained in straightened economic times. In addition, it is estimated that poverty costs between £10 and £20 billion a year in terms of increased ill health, unemployment and crime.Field’s report, commissioned by the Coalition government, says: “Poverty that parents endure is all too often visited on their children to the degree that they continue to be poor as they enter adulthood. While income is still important, it is not the exclusive or necessarily the dominant cause of poverty being handed on from one generation to another.”The review draws on several longitudinal studies in the UK to argue that children’s life chances are largely predicated on their development in the first five years of life. “By the age of three, a baby’s brain is 80 per cent formed and his or her experiences before then shape the way the brain has grown and developed,” it says.Targeting the factors that determine those life chances is therefore critical, the report says. “The things that matter most are a healthy pregnancy, good maternal mental health, secure bonding with the child, love and responsiveness of parents along with clear boundaries, as well as opportunities for a child’s cognitive, language and social and emotional development.”On this basis, lifting disadvantaged children out of poverty goes beyond raising short-term family incomes. Far more important, according to the review, are good ante-natal services, support with positive but authoritative parenting, high quality childcare, encouraging a positive approach to learning at home and improving parents’ qualifications. Together, these can “transform children’s life chances and trump class background and parental income”.However, the review also says that improving the quality of services is critical. For one thing, it claims that “GPs, midwives, health visitors, hospital services, children’s centres and nurseries together provide fragmented services that are neither well understood nor easily accessed by all of those who might benefit most”.Schools, too, are criticised for failing to close the achievement gap. “Children who arrive in the bottom range of ability tend to stay there. The associations between cognitive development at age five and later educational outcomes are very strong.”Field points out that poor children still tend to get poor services. “[Inspection] reports show that schools and childcare in deprived areas are of a lower standard than in affluent areas.”One of two main answers offered by the report is for the government gradually to move funding to the foundation years (0-5), with a weighting towards the most disadvantaged so that the gap between poorer and richer children narrows.Here, Field argues, services can make a real contribution. He cites evidence that children in Sure Start show better behaviour and greater independence, partly because of improved parenting and home learning environments. Evidence is also presented showing that pre-school helps to reduce disadvantage.Even so, the report acknowledges that the evidence could be stronger, and commends the forthcoming government review – led by Graham Allen MP – looking at what works in early intervention, how this could best be supported and disseminated, and new and innovative funding mechanisms.The review also recommends that children’s centres refocus on their original purpose and “identify, reach and provide targeted help to the most disadvantaged families”. Universal provision should help to make centres welcoming, inclusive, socially mixed and non-stigmatising, but the aim should be to target services towards those who can benefit from them most.Better services will need better staff, so the review also advocates increasing graduate-led pre-school provision through appropriate professional development.The second of the report’s two main recommendations is for a set of “life chances indicators’” to measure “how successful we are as a country in making more equal life’s outcomes for all children”.It is proposed to chart annual progress nationally on a range of factors in young children known to be predictive of children’s future outcomes. Standardized scales covering children’s physical, behavioural, social and emotional development at age three are recommended, as are tried-and-tested measures of the home learning environment, parenting, maternal mental health and the quality of nursery care.Field says that presentation of results should focus on the gap between low-income families and all other children. This should be supplemented by a measure of service quality to show “how the quality of services available to children from low income families compares with the quality of the services available to their more affluent peers”.Source:Field, F. (2010) The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children becoming Poor Adults. London: HM Government.

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