The independent Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has today published a weighty tome, running to 348 pages, which in size at least indicates the zeal of its members to ‘hold the Government’s feet to the fire’. Led by former Labour frontbencher Alan Milburn, and deputy chaired by former Conservative Minister Baroness Gillian Shephard, the Commission is decidedly even-handed in its appraisal, alternating between assessment of the current and previous governments to spread the blame and some of the credit across all the main political parties.
In keeping with its deliberately balanced analysis, I’d like to offer one positive and one more critical comment about the new State of the Nation report.
The media coverage so far has focused on two main stories: the growing problem of ‘in-work poverty’ – affecting families where at least one adult works, but living standards are falling due to stagnating wages and rising prices; and the political dilemmas wrought by intergenerational inequality, particularly the vexed question of whether or not well-off pensioners really need their free bus passes, TV licenses and winter fuel allowance.
While these headline messages encompass an important set of issues, there is a lot more to be gathered from the report within its plentiful pages. The apparent spat between Milburn and the Deputy Prime Minister about what to do to tackle intergenerational inequality should not distract from the repositioning that the report represents.
Rightly, the Commission members are unimpressed by the ‘myriad of different initiatives, indicators and strategies’ that have been forthcoming since 2010. The plethora of strategy documents (relating to ‘Social Justice’, ‘Child Poverty’ and ‘Social Mobility’) reflects the keenness of each Coalition Partner to demonstrate (rhetorically, at least) its fairness credentials in a time of austerity. It also indicates some of the jostling for control of the political agenda that has been going on behind the scenes.
The focus of this latest report is primarily on the UK Government’s Social Mobility strategy (which shares almost all of the same policy priorities as its Child Poverty strategy) – reflecting the priorities of the Deputy Prime Minister, who called on Alan Milburn to act as ‘social mobility’ Tsar many months before his appointment as head of this Commission was finally agreed by other, more reluctant members of the Cabinet. Tellingly, the Commission’s report is pitched at a much broader swathe of the population than the ‘Social Justice’ agenda driven by DWP Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, who in office has pursued the same moral crusade against Broken Families that began after his ‘Damascene’ conversion during a visit to Glasgow’s Easterhouse estate in 2002.
For anti-poverty campaigners, there tends to be a decided antipathy towards the policy goal of ‘social mobility’ – it seeming to offer a rosy prospect for the brightest and most fortunate children from poorer families, while confining the rest to a continued existence in relative poverty and deprivation.
But rather than confining the poverty debate to welfare reform targeted towards (or perhaps against) the bottom 1-10%, it is arguably more productive to build a coalition around more equitable life chances for the bottom 90 or 99%.
One of the main practical recommendations here is the call for a broader definition of disadvantage than eligibility for free school meals, which doesn’t ‘properly capture the breadth of the cohort which is in poverty or at risk of falling into it’. The report notes that one-third of school-aged children living in poverty in England – around 700,000 children are not entitled to this extra support. It is right to call for a new definition which includes all children at risk of poverty and disadvantage.
More broadly, by focusing on the life chances of a broader group of children and young people – not just those purportedly afflicted by severe, persistent and inter-generational poverty – the Commission has positioned itself against a reductionist view of poverty, which should be welcomed. What is more, this is a report that talks repeatedly about child poverty, warmly welcoming the Government’s decision not to jettison the 2020 child poverty targets (brushing over its ongoing attempts to redefine how child poverty is measured), and refusing to let child poverty slip quietly off the agenda. This is a positive – even if the hope of further progress towards the 2020 vision feels like a distant dream.
This brings us to the negative: despite the telling critique of certain aspects of past and current approaches, the report is too generous in suggesting that either government has made anything like sufficient progress towards raising the tail of underachievement and in tackling the UK’s abysmal record on youth and adult skills. Yes, there is more to do to open up a rather closed meritocratic system, in which young people from more privileged backgrounds find it far easier to do well at school and gain entry to higher status universities, qualifications and jobs than their less affluent counterparts. But the report does not give enough direction about what more must be done to tackle underachievement and poor development, beginning in the early years of life.
Progress towards promoting early childhood development is being severely constrained by under-investment in proper training for the early years workforce. The Commission rightly recognises that one of the keys to unlock social progress is ‘high-quality, affordable and universal childcare that enables more parents to work and helps improve children’s early development’. ‘High quality’ needs to be more than a catchphrase. It should mean employing a professional workforce of qualified teachers to ensure every child has the foundations for learning by the time they start school.
Despite recent projections, Ministers have continued to assert that the Coalition’s flagship policies are on track, and will improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged children and young people. As reviewed here, the evidence to support these claims is unconvincing. The weakness of the ‘new approach’ is not that it has focused on the wrong areas of policy; like the ‘old’ approach, the key programmes are, in the main, based on sound evidence that worklessness, low educational achievement and poor maternal and infant health are the key drivers of poverty and limited life chances. Where the government's approach seriously falls short, however, is in expecting a few flagship programmes to do all the heavy lifting.
In the face of wider spending cuts to key public services and changes to the tax and benefit system that will have an overall adverse effect on children and families, the Coalition will be lucky to achieve even the same slow level of progress in narrowing achievement gaps as that achieved under the previous government. As Labour’s limited record shows, making progress on tackling poverty and entrenched social disadvantage is not easy even in good economic times, let alone in the new age of austerity. But the biggest poverty gap that now exists is that between the government’s rhetoric and reality. It would help if the Coalition started by giving up the rhetoric of a ‘new approach’, and responded to the Commission’s report with an honest appraisal of the likely impact of its policies.
Louise Bamfield is Associate Director of RSA Education.