The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults, the final report of the UK Government Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances headed by Labour MP Frank Field, argues for an expansion of provision for children in their early years and a downgrading of efforts to reduce income poverty.
In June 2010, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, commissioned Frank Field MP to conduct an Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances.
The aim of the Review was to:
The PSE: UK team’s response to the Field Review consultation on poverty and life chances was published in Tackling Child Poverty and Improving Life Chances: Consulting on a New Approach, Working Paper, policy series no. 1.
The final report, The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults, was published on 3 December 2010. It argues that:
A major limitation of the existing child poverty measures is that they have incentivised a policy response focused largely on income transfers. This approach has stalled in recent years and is financially unsustainable. A more effective approach is to use a set of measures that will incentivise a focus on improving children’s life chances, and ultimately break the transmission of intergenerational disadvantage.
It makes two main recommendations:
In establishing a set of ‘Life Chances indicators’, nine indicators are proposed covering:
The emphasis of these indicators is on personal and individual characteristics rather than wider social and environmental factors. Many studies over the last fifty years and across many countries have shown the importance of wider social and environmental factors on life chances.
The recommendations concentrate on young children, arguing that the early years are ‘crucial’. However, while the early years are indeed crucial, intervention at this age alone is insufficient. All of childhood is important and some children (often poorer children) who do well in primary school fall back in secondary school.
The emphasis in the Report on early years education and family support has been welcomed by many. However, the Report has been widely seen to underestimate the importance of poverty on life chances. While improved provision in early years can mitigate some of the impact of poverty it is in itself insufficient. Kathleen Kiernan, Professor of Social Policy and Demography at the University of York, and colleagues have examined data from the UK Millennium Cohort study to assess the extent to which positive parenting mediated the effects of poverty and disadvantage. Kiernan concludes:
despite the best efforts of their parents, children living in poverty and relatively disadvantaged circumstances still remain behind their wealthier, well-parented peers. …
Children’s achievement can be adversely affected by poor parenting; it can also be adversely affected by poverty. Directing efforts at only poverty or parenting, to the exclusion of the other, is unlikely to result in equitable outcomes.
The Report's authors (see Kiernan, K.E. and Mensah, F.K. (2010) ‘Poverty, family resources and children’s early educational attainment: the mediating role of parenting’, British Educational Research Journal; subscription only) conclude:
It was clear from our analyses that poverty mattered, but persistent poverty was even more detrimental for children’s attainment.
Others argue that the government cuts put at risk existing investment in early years education established under the Labour government (see ‘Frank Field must not let the unthinkable happen to Sure Start’ by Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, 3 December 2010).
The Report not only downgrades the importance of poverty as a determinant of life chances but also downgrades the importance of poverty in itself. Poverty is a problem here and now for those children living in families with insufficient resources quite apart from its effect on their future life chances, significant as that is. Life chances is a quite different concept and any particular child’s life chances will depend not just on their own situation – both financial and non-financial – but on their relative chances in relation to others right up the income range. Field takes a narrow view of these questions, seeing an expansion of provision for support for parenting as at the expense of income support for poor families, a prescription that The Guardian editorial argues could prove ‘poisonous’ (‘Frank Field’s poverty study’, The Guardian, 6 December 2010).