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Our Trustees’ AwayDay (which was neither away nor a day, but very useful nevertheless) having finished, I find myself with a rare opening in my diary. How better to fill it than reading David Cameron’s speech on character and parenting delivered yesterday at Demos.

And what a fascinating speech it is. I hope it justifies this long post.

Let me start with some of the things I really liked about it.

It has a strong core narrative. It isn’t just a list of facts or sound bites. It is genuinely interesting. A couple of points made me pause, just to let them sink in. Like this for example:

Commercialisation and the culture of children's rights means that children are treated like adults while a great knot of rules and regulations and over-the-top bureaucratic nonsense means that increasingly adults are treated like children. With a culture of suspicion and paranoia that is increasingly preventing adults from even interacting with young people. We can’t go on like this. It’s time we gave children back their childhood and got adults to behave like adults’.

There was also a reassuring recognition of past mistakes

This is relatively new territory for the Conservative Party. In the past we’ve been guilty of giving the impression that to build a responsible society, all we needed was freedom for the individual plus a strong rule of law from the state. We didn't talk enough about what happened in between.’

There were also elements which showed that the modern Conservative Party is willing to support policies previous Tories might have ruled out on principle. For example: 

• Extra spending commitments: Sure Start, Health Visitors, a National Citizen Service for Young People, and the implicit cost of delivering on the pledge to let head teachers expel pupils unilaterally (Referral Units are very expensive).

• Criticism of the media: ‘The media needs to show some restraint as well. The premature sexualisation of our children has already gone way too far. There is way too much arbitrary violence in the lives of children too young to understand irony or fantasy. Businesses have got to understand that parents don’t like it and want it to stop’

• And a willingness to regulate when it is needed even where this adds burdens to business:

‘we’ll introduce Flexible Parental Leave, meaning both parents can share the responsibilities of caring for a new baby’

‘we’ll extend the right to request flexible working to all parents with a child under eighteen’

The speech also put meat on the bones of the Tory approach to decentralisation. On the one hand, Mr Cameron argues, both for schools and for Sure Start, that there are some practices that clearly work better than others, that services must be held to account for their effectiveness and that there should be more use of payment by results. On the other hand, he argues for more diverse provision (particularly more use of the not for profit sector) in running schools and Sure Start services.

This underlines a model which decentralises governance and ownership (so local services are not part of national or local bureaucracies) but, arguably, increases central prescription over the content of the service provided. Assuming they win power, it will be interesting to see whether the Conservatives can pull off this balancing act.

I was less convinced by the section of the speech on the foundations of good character. Mr Cameron is clearly very excited by the idea that it is parenting not class that matters:

I believe that this research produced recently by Demos is truly ground-breaking. It shows that the differences in child outcomes between a child born in poverty and a child born in wealth are no longer statistically significant when both have been raised by “confident and able” parents.

For those who care about fairness and inequality, this is one of the most important findings in a generation. It would be over the top to say that it is to social science what E=MC2 was to physics, but I think it is a real 'sit up and think' moment. That discovery defined the laws of relativity; this one is the new law for social mobility:

What matters most to a child’s life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting’.

Wow – Richard Reeves as Einstein (not that I’m jealous, of course!). High praise indeed. The problem, I think, is that the evidence doesn’t quite make the point being argued by the Conservative leader. This is because his final rhetorical flourish conflates two arguments:

  1. If you have a good upbringing it can largely cancel out the effects of poverty
  2. You are much more likely to have a good upbringing if your family does not live in poverty.
  3. The policy question is not whether Government should encourage good parenting (of course it should, and, to be fair, the current Labour Government has massively expanded parenting provision) it is, first, whether policy can significantly increase the proportion of poor families who parent successfully, and, second, whether this is a more effective strategy than simply trying to reduce the number of families in poverty.

    Mr Cameron appears to acknowledge this when he says a few paragraphs later:

    'Successful parenting style in wealthier families occurs not because these people are intrinsically better, or that they love their children more. It is because with poverty can come a host of other problems that make parenting more difficult. Worse schools, higher crime, bad housing. Unemployment. Problems with alcohol and drugs. Mental health conditions. The wearying grind of worry about debt. Higher crime, bad housing. Unemployment. Problems with alcohol and drugs. Mental health conditions' 

    But this paragraph is hard to reconcile with the earlier statement (which is worth repeating):

    ‘What matters most to a child’s life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting’

    This I suspect is the take-out line, the one that shows the core philosophy and reassures the Party activist, rather than the more nuanced elaboration a few paragraphs later.

    This impression is underlined by two further points. First, I hear (perhaps someone can confirm) that in questioning Mr Cameron rejected the idea that Government should see reducing statistical inequality as an objective of policy (which directly contradicts something I heard David Willetts say at a Bow Group meeting we both addressed last year). And the fact that Mr Cameron repeatedly praises the Demos work while pointedly ignoring its most uncomfortable finding for the Conservatives, which is that marital status does not seem to be a significant variable in successful parenting.

    So this is a powerful, interesting and at times incisive speech (how often can we say that about political offerings?). It also confirms the impression that as more policy clarity is demanded and as the public spending sums get harder, the Cameron blend of progressive and traditional Conservative ideas may be gradually tilting towards the latter.  

    Discuss …

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