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Frank Field is right on early years, wrong on poverty

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.

2 Responses to “Frank Field is right on early years, wrong on poverty”

  1. Chris says:

    You highlight another important point, about confusing good aspirations with harmful ones. Why did the individual have to spend extra time having to work to buy “the right labels”? Are they really that important? Your implication is that if she’d had more money the boy could have done more things, but isn’t the real problem that we work so much that we don’t have any time to spend with our kids and thus they have no ‘news’, but more importantly they don’t feel loved, which makes such an impact whether it’s foundation years or slightly later on?

    Of course, it’s not great if people feel encouraged to not work, and tax credits seeks to counteract that, plus it’s a lot more targeted than simply raising the personal allowance, which high-earning part-time workers would also benefit from. However, his point is that when you have a limited budget it’s better to spend the money on the most important things, which is improving the early education of people, rather than just giving money to people.

    I think his report sounds extremely important, and I sincerely hope that lots of it is adopted and affects government policy and general debate in years to come.

  2. Charmaine Morgan says:

    Chris,
    Isn’t the real issue that it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to work and live on the income they earn? The Rowntree report highlights the issue of working poverty. The minimum wage is simply not enough. If we are to tackle public spending I would like to know why the Government thinks it is ok to continue with a minimum wage whilst subsidising employers through benefits to their underpaid staff.

    I would like to see a system where profitable companies have to pay at least £8.50 an hour to their staff.

    I also think that the Government is trying to have its cake and eat it. It does not want to support mothers staying at home, yet, all the evidence shows children thrive in a loving home environment. What society do we have when we will pay someone else to look after a child – anyone other than it’s own mother?

    I gave up my well paid job when I had my daughter. We now struggle to make ends meet but I don’t regret a minute of it. She will only be here a short while, and whilst we dont go on foreign trips anymore I can take her for day trips to the seaside, walks in the park and play with her. But the low cost places are disappearing – local woodland, local library, local museum. They are all part of the rich culture and natural environment any bright young child should be
    exploring yet again, the Government is taking away these vital facilities.
    Charities do not make up the shortfall. The cost of membership is prohibitive for many people, and the costs once there even more so. It takes a strong person to visit the NT and not spend a penny on pre wrapped cookies.

    You mention the need to buy luxury goods. There is a demand. Not surprising when the Government has done everything it can to ope up TV and the advertising that goes with it.

    I restricted my daughters viewing to the BBC. The BBC are the worst culprits when it comes to merchandising. Not only do they merchandise across most of their programmes, but the items sold are expensive in comparison to other non named brands. Charlie & Lola, Peppa Pig, In The Night Garden, Bob the Builder – Cbeebies magazine – Mr Make It, to name but a few….
    Why are Charlie & Lola slippers £8 a pair but supermarket or local market only £3-£5?
    The BBC is catering to a middle class audience raising the expectations of low income household children. About time it stopped.

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