The importance of a child’s early years: Frank Field’s Important Report
by David Alton on Friday, February 4, 2011 at 4:00pm
A rabbi once said “God was too busy – so He invented mothers” – perhaps I could be permitted to add that He also invented fathers – and that the absence of fathers in the lives of their children has become one of the major factors in the disaggregation of our communities and in the shaping of the next generation of adults. It is estimated that three quarters of a million children in Britain have no contact with their fathers.
In 2002 the think tank, Civitas, in a report entitled “Experiments in living: the fatherless family”, spelt out the consequences for children being brought up without a father.
They found that they are more likely to live in poverty and deprivation; to have emotional or mental problems; to have trouble at school; to have trouble getting along with others; to have a higher risk of health problems; that they are more likely to run away from home and are likely to be at greater risk of suffering physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
Many of secretly cheered when, just after the election, the Prime Minister asked Birkenhead’s widely admired MP, Labour’s Frank Field, to take a dispassionate look at the plight of children living in impoverished and disintegrating families and communities. His recently published report is entitled: “The Foundation Years, preventing poor children becoming poor adults.”
In it, Mr.Field reflects on the rejection of children by their parents:
“Since 1969 I have witnessed a growing indifference from some parents to meeting the most basic needs of children, and particularly younger children, those who are least able to fend for themselves.”
His view is supported by the Millennium Cohort Study for Bristol University which showed that, measured at the age of three, the key drivers in determining a child’s life chances are positive and authoritative parenting, the home learning environment and other home and family related factors. Frank Field says these measurements should be used as Life Chance Indicators, predictive of children’s readiness for school and of later life outcomes.
These Indicators and the Foundation Years Strategy which he proposes, as the first pillar of a new tripartite education system, may not immediately end income poverty but it can break the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage.
Research commissioned by the department of work and Pensions bears this out: the simple involvement of a mother or father being interested in their children’s education increases a child’s chance of moving out of poverty as an adult by 25%. We must urgently make the teaching of parenting and life skills a greater priority. The extension of initiatives such as Mumsnet, the kite marking of beneficial television programmes, and a reassessment of the relentless and corrosive advertising aimed at children, also have their place. Sure Start Children’s Centres can help parents put elementary parameters, essential for later progress into place – basic things like getting parents to teach their children how to sit still and to listen; how to be aware of others; understanding words like no and stop; mastering basic hygiene and so on. And the Government needs to think again if it plans to radically reduce Sure Start provision.
Frank Field has in no way changed his view about the importance of tackling poverty but believes, as I do, that a strategy which solely depends on income transfer to remedy child poverty is doomed to fail. Instead of viewing the problem through the prism of Charles Booth or Seebohm Rowntree – the tradition which shaped the Child Poverty Act of 2010 – and which led in the past 10 years to the redistribution of £134 billion through tax credit to poorer families – he invites us to consider whether throwing more money at the problem is either realistic or effective. In reality this is a stalled strategy and we must not allow it to strait jacket the debate.
Frank Field’s timely and admirable report reminds us that it would require £37 billion of further tax transfers, per annum, to cut child poverty to 5% of all children by 2020.
Resources do clearly play a part in the nurturing children but, as he says, “this task is not primarily one that belongs to the State. We imperil the country’s future if we forget that it is the aspirations and actions of parents which are critical to how well their children prosper.”
My own parents left school at 14 and came from backgrounds of acute poverty – but both knew the importance of a positive approach to learning at home; to encouraging the education of their children; to improving their own qualifications; and that, despite the vicissitudes of living in poor housing and in a flat on an overspill council estate, money alone was not the key to transforming the life chances of the next generation. I saw this same trump card used by many families in the inner city neighbourhoods of Liverpool that I represented for 25 years as a city councillor or Member of Parliament.
Frank Filed reflects that he has “increasingly come to view poverty as a more subtle enemy than pure lack of money, and I have similarly become increasingly concerned about how the poverty that parents endure is all too often visited on their children.”
Human instinct surely convinces us that a child ideally needs loving parents to provide security, encouragement and a tough love disciplined framework in which they can flourish. Reversing the remorseless erosion of stable parenting cannot be achieved over night but it is they key to liberating the hundreds of thousands of people trapped in cycles of poverty and who are diminished, stunted, by under achievement.
The impact of how well parents nurture their children goes beyond a child fulfilling its potential – it affects the social cohesion of our communities and will, in the long term, affect the happiness as and prosperity of our country.
Mr.Field’s report is hugely important and greatly to be welcomed. It is the fruit of 40 years of working with or representing the underprivileged and disadvantaged. The Government should put its recommendations into effect.