Friday, December 03, 2010

First Choose Your Parents

As regular readers will know, BOM has always had the highest regard for Frank "think the unthinkable" Field. So we were very pleased when Cam appointed him Poverty Czar with a brief to take a good hard look at what we can actually do about it. In particular, what can be done about child poverty?

Today we got his report, and it contains a giant helping of what the Major calls good old fashion common sense.

To begin with, Field wallops Labour's obsession with its meaningless child poverty target - ie the aim to ensure by 2020 that no child lives in a household below an arbitrary line drawn at 60% of median income. Field says:
"The anti-poverty agenda is driven along a single track of hunting down families who live below this line and then marking up a success as a family is moved across the line, no matter how marginal is the advance in their income. It does little to concentrate on those children who endure persistent poverty. Worse still, this approach has prevented a much more comprehensive strategy emerging on how best, in the longer run, to counter child poverty in a way that prevents poor children from becoming poor adults."
Spot on Frank. We have long believed that dishing out yet more cash to poor families is missing the point. In general, even the lowest incomes today have moved far above what most of us mean by poverty (eg see this blog). Here's what happened to incomes on that 60% benchmark over the last half century (in real terms, adjusted for inflation):

As we can see, income on Labour's definition of the Poverty Line more than doubled from around £6k pa to nearly £13k. That is not a meaningful definition of poverty.

What's more, taxpayers can no longer afford to fund poverty relief on that scale. As Field says:
"To meet a target of cutting child poverty to 5 per cent of all children by 2020 a further £37 billion per annum in tax credit transfers is required... an unthinkable sum in current conditions. Can anyone seriously maintain that sums of these sizes will be forthcoming over the decade, to 2020?"
Much more usefully, Field focuses on the real problem - what on earth can we do to prevent poor children from becoming poor adults?

And here, he spells out something we all know, but which PC squeamishness has for too long excluded from the public debate on child poverty:
"Even if the money were available to lift all children out of income poverty in the short term, it is far from clear that this move would in itself close the achievement gap.

... there is much more beyond just improving short-term family incomes in determining the life chances of poor children. A healthy pregnancy, positive but authoritative parenting, high quality childcare, a positive approach to learning at home and an improvement in parents’ qualifications together, can transform children’s life chances, and trump class background and parental income.

A child growing up in a family with these attributes, even if the family is poor, has every chance of succeeding in life."
That resonates so strongly with Tyler. As he's blogged many times, he had the great good fortune to grow up in a family with little money but absolutely outstanding parents. And when it comes to a choice between those two, there is no choice - first, choose your parents.

Fine. Common sense.

Except unfortunately, there just aren't enough good parents to go round. And there are especially not enough to go round down in the depths of welfare dependency.

So what to do? How do we get those problem parents we've blogged so often take their responsibilities seriously? And even if we manage that, how do we get them capable of discharging those responsibilities?

Frank's solution is to expand the support services available to help. He wants organised training for parents. He wants to refocus the floundering Sure Start programme on helping the weakest parents who really need the help. He wants pre-school foundation programmes to have resource priority ahead of more spending on Child Tax Credits. He wants to get charities and voluntary groups more involved. And he wants to formalise the responsibilities of local councils and schools for lifting the attainment levels of disadvantaged kids.

Now all of that sounds quite sensible - certainly the way Frank tells it. The whole thing is geared to breaking the dire intergenerational spiral of dependency and decline visited on us by the welfare state. And it has to be better than Labour's bone-headed pursuit of arbitrary income targets.

But what we don't want is to exchange Labour's socialist poverty disaster, with a different socialist poverty disaster.

Because although this report points in the right general direction - ie less reliance on ever-expanding welfare payments and more reliance on the poor taking back responsibility for their own lives - Frank is still a socialist. Deep down he may still believe that government can find technical solutions - ways of applying the very best brains to crack even the toughest problems.

And Tyler found himself shifting uncomfortably as he read the following (quoted approvingly by Frank from a couple of eminent education Profs):
"We seem to know as much in principle about how parental involvement and its impact on pupil achievement as Newton knew about the physics of motion in the seventeenth century. What we seem to lack is the ‘engineering science’ that helps us put our knowledge into practice. By 1650 Newton knew in theory how to put a missile on the moon. It took more than 300 years to learn how to do this in practice. The scientists who did this used Newton’s physics with modern engineering knowledge. We must not wait three hundred years to promote stellar advances in pupils’ achievement. We need urgently to learn how to apply the knowledge we already have in the field."
No, no, no.

You see, the problem with that is that physics is physics. Whereas pupil achievement is all about horribly messy human beings. Human beings who can't even manage their own behaviour, let alone manage the behaviour of other human beings.

Let's hope Frank doesn't really believe we can somehow engineer our way out of this.

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