By David Robinson
I’ve long been a follower of Frank Field, at first as a youthful admirer, more recently out of simple curiosity. His early work with the Child Poverty Action Group was bold, innovative and genuinely influential. Now he is a one man coalition, opposition, quirky think tank all rolled into one. A previous prime minister famously asked Field to think the unthinkable and quickly regretted it. Very little in his new report on poverty and life chances could be fairly characterised as unthinkable but I doubt whether any other individual has ever thought this particular combination of thoughts at any single moment in the past.
In essence Field says the “foundation years” (0-5) are critical to a child’s life chances. Early years support for parent and child must therefore be of the highest priority. Field makes the case well for a tripartite education system raising the status of the foundation years to that of an equal with school and higher education. It builds on the network of 3500 Sure Start Centres named last week by the Institute of Government as one of the most successful government policies of the last 30 years and is exactly the approach of the “early action society” about which we have written often in this blog in recent months. This admirable section of the report has all the characteristics of that rare breed of political vision that rises above the art of the possible and reaches instead for the pursuit of possibility.
Then the contrary Field fights back suggesting that this development might be funded not through the taxes of those whose life chances have already been secured but by withholding above inflation increases in child tax credits. With one hand he giveth….
A neighbour of mine, a single parent, worked extra shifts last summer to ensure that her 11 year old son had all the right kit for secondary school – not just any old bag or trainers but the right labels to ensure a flying start in the playground and the class room. Her boy returned distraught on the first day. He hadn’t, he told his mother, got what the other kids had. The teacher had asked the class to write about their holidays – where they’d been and what they’d done. “News” she called it. My neighbour’s son had none.
No news is bad news so today my neighbour has another job. Not a different one but another one. Like over half of people living below the poverty line in the UK, she works very very hard but is paid little and is still poor. Separating the improvement of a child’s life chances from the reduction of poverty is Frankly absurd.
How would I pay for early years support under the spending rules of this government? Whitehall and town halls are cutting around 30% over this spending round. Not without pain or loss but it will be done. Take another 5% currently spent on acute services and move it into this kind of early action. Then another 5% next year and 5 more the year after, not reducing spending but realigning it from acute services to earlier intervention. A transition plan of this sort, modelled perhaps on the Carbon Emission Transition Plans, in every public service agency, funder and funded, would be difficult to devise and to deliver but it would fundamentally improve life chances within a generation. And it wouldn’t simultaneously undermine them.
The PM and his deputy described Fields report as a “vital moment in the history of our efforts to tackle poverty”. It was an appropriately enigmatic response –“vital” suggests lively, vigorous, essential even – but “moment”? Every policy proponent fears a moment in the sun and a long time gathering dust in the shadows. We must hope that half of this important report gets the long term attention it richly deserves. And we must work very hard indeed to ensure that it is the right half.