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Primary Education News
News Inequality in Britain: too many children are born to fail. Why? | Observer editorial
Almost no progress has been made in closing the gap in life chances between poor and affluent children in the past 40 years
Equality of opportunity has been embraced by left and right alike. Who could disagree with the sentiment that all children deserve a fair start in life?
Yet Sunday's report from the National Children's Bureau shows just how little progress has been made in closing the gap between children from poor and affluent backgrounds over the past 40 years.
It is a monumental failure of policy in which the whole political establishment is implicated.
Beneath the report's stark figures lies a simple reality. From the moment children are conceived, the arc of their life story is shaped. The words may not come until much later, but the backbone of their narrative, while not immutable, will prove virtually resistant to change.
This was true 40 years ago when the bureau published its damning report, Born to Fail?; it is true today and it will be true in another 40 years unless something fundamental changes.
Too often, the response is to reach for the comfort of a favourite worldview: policy prescriptions driven by ideology, not evidence. For some, it is all about economic poverty; for others, poverty of parenting.
But there is too much at stake to retreat to dogma. Politicians need to face uncomfortable truths head on, even where they challenge belief systems of the left or right.
Fifty years of cohort research tell us what is surely common sense: both poverty and parenting matter a lot to a child's life chances.
Of course, it is harder to parent if you yourself are going without in order to put a meal on the table for your children; if you are constantly worrying about how to make your minimum-wage pay last until the end of the week, and your children are living on top of each other in rundown housing.
Money matters. It is dishonest of politicians to proclaim their commitment to equality of opportunity while trumpeting vigorous benefit cuts (which hit families in low-paid jobs) as a signal of their commitment to end feckless welfarism. It is children who suffer.
But all the money in the world cannot make up for being born to a teenage mother who, while she desperately loves her baby, sometimes has no idea how to create a warm, safe, nurturing environment because no one has ever done that for her; doesn't understand how to respond to his emotional cues and interact with him; and isn't aware of the lifetime of health benefits she could provide by breast-feeding.
The previous government rightly recognised money is not enough and developed services to improve the life chances of children born in such circumstances. Yet they had limited effect and there are important lessons for any future government committed to this agenda.
It was not enough to create a new service infrastructure such as Sure Start children's centres. It must be marshalled in the right way. The vast majority of parents need no more than the lightest-touch information and advice, but a small minority of at-risk families need intensive support as early as possible.
Parenting services relentlessly focused on closing the gap would combine universal public health messages with targeted intensive support, such as the Family Nurse Partnership programme, in which highly trained nurses work with vulnerable first-time mothers for over two years to support them in creating the warm and nurturing environment for their baby that is so fundamental.
It is underpinned by 30 years of research demonstrating its effectiveness, yet is available to nowhere near enough mothers who could benefit from it. Meanwhile, the government continues to spend money on poorly targeted parenting classes, many based on little evidence of what works in shifting parenting behaviour.
The government needs to get the balance between universal and targeted interventions right, which may involve difficult trade-offs. Children's centres ended up being a popular and universal service that drew in the middle classes, often to the exclusion of the most disadvantaged.
Universally free nursery places for three- and four-year-olds help mothers from all social groups back to work. But if early years education was really focused on closing the gap, it would skew resource towards driving up quality in the most deprived areas.
Excellent schools that offer children opportunities against the odds show what is possible to those schools that plead disadvantage as an excuse for poor results. The radical improvement of schools in some inner cities, including London, is one of the Labour government's most impressive successes.
There are still too many failing schools in our poorest communities: there should be a continual drive to channel the best leaders and teachers to those areas.
But this is not enough: Ofsted has highlighted that poor children in decent schools in affluent areas are worse served by the system than those in schools where there is a concentration of deprivation, because they are effectively written off.
Last, closing the gap in life chances requires pump-priming by the Treasury if it is not to be a victim of decentralisation. This is a long-term agenda that requires a pooled-budget mentality: money spent by the NHS on health visiting can end up saving schools and the youth justice system money a decade or more later.
Yet this government's health and education reforms are driving greater fragmentation, not consolidation, of local budgets.
Expensive but effective programmes such as Family Nurse Partnership and Reading Recovery, a reading tuition programme for six-year-olds, eventually pay for themselves many times over, but would not have got off the ground without Whitehall sponsorship under a Labour government.
Each year, 700,000 babies are born in Britain. Doing the best possible by each and every one is surely the most precious of missions.
The most important roles, of course, fall to parents, to extended family, to the community, to health visitors and to teachers.
But our political leaders have a critical part to play, especially for our most disadvantaged children. They owe it to them to resist the tempting lure of pet theories and to take a hard-headed look at the evidence as to why the odds are decisively stacked against so many children before they are even born and what we can do about it.