Chancing on lives

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Children fishing as a rising tide lifts some boats, but not the broken ones

David Cameron has given a ‘new year new party’ kind of speech, reasserting the Conservatives as a compassionate party wanting to improve ‘Life Chances’ for children and young people. He wants us to go beyond the binary of social intervention or the market, and to go deeper to understand causes of poverty. He asserts that Government does have a role in intervening to address the extremities of poverty. He said “I am not against state intervention…a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats”.

Leaving aside the insensitivity of using the ‘rising tide’ phrase after historic flooding and alarming predictions of rising sea levels, I suspect that this is all spin. Cameron may want to see more people lifted out of poverty (so that they have more spending power) but he does not want to see more equality, which would mean limits on freedom to exploit and accumulate. His pitch is about stealing a march on Labour and its somewhat leftward shift. It is an appeal to the UK electorate that is growing more left-wing or perhaps has long been more left than assumed.

The Life Chances approach comes directly from the right wing think tank Centre for Social Justice. In summer 2015, they published a report calling for a reform to the Child Poverty Act of 2010, which aimed to reduce relative poverty by 2020, in order to focus on life chances of poorer children. A focus on needs sounds efficient, but in dropping the goals of ending poverty it sacrifices the ideal of redistribution of income. Cameron justifies this by saying the old target-driven approach “missed that human dimension to poverty: the social causes, the reasons people can get stuck, and become isolated.”

This tries to speak to a soft liberal complaint about an overly financial approach to social intervention. But this is unfair. The number of UK children in absolute poverty is 2.6 million. Their families should have their basic needs met whether via money or in what money can enable indirectly.

Cameron wants to go ‘deeper’ to address the most significant root cause of poverty. Rather than going direct to the obvious tap roots of income, food and shelter, he goes sideways into a more theoretical zone that makes you think he’s considerate. But first in his speech he reassures us that security is his priority is (he says it 9 times out of 177 words). He underlines the Government’s record on economic security by claiming that the number of children in workless households is at a record low. He doesn’t mention income here, nor that many of these new jobs are low paid, zero hours and part time. If rising housing costs are taken into account, any income gains from work are null.

Cameron believes that “applying… principles of more choice and competition to our public services has…helped the most disadvantaged. But some people get left behind.” His speech has echoes of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ approach that brought major reform of US schools and has so inspired ‘Academisation’ and our test-driven system.

How to help the ones that fall back even behind the ‘most disadvantaged’? What is this magical social approach, so much better than trying to convince an alcoholic abuse victim single mum that “because her benefits have risen by a couple of pounds a week, she and her children have been magically lifted out of poverty”? This is precisely the type of single mum that has suffered from closure of Sure Start centres, evidenced in a report that they tried to suppress. Despite appearances, this deeper social approach is no different from the “principles of competition” that Cameron believes have helped those most in need, while also somehow leaving too many behind.

Here comes the ‘science bit’. He has four insights to share from pioneering, progressive research about child welfare and education.

His first point: Neuroscience shows us the vital importance of early years in “determining the adults we become”. Certainly, there is strong evidence for this. But, Conservative policy has taken this idea of ‘start early’ and instead emphasised making children as young as two ‘school ready’, even if to the detriment of their wellbeing. They have not talked about enabling the most nurturing environment possible.

His second point: The importance of developing ‘character and resilience’ as well as acquiring knowledge. Again, it is hard to dispute the importance of behaviour and relational skills. However, he uses a synecdochal argument. All the many dimensions of character are squeezed into one, grit. See how the umbrella term and one dimension within it are used synonymously: “Character – persistence – is core to success.” He simplifies Carol Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset’ idea which is that our traits are not fixed, to suggest that this learning is all about “continued hard work and concentration”.

His third point: Social connections and experiences are vitally important in ‘helping people get on’. Yes, I am convinced that amongst other contributions, we can celebrate “the power of the informal mentors, the mixing of communities, the broadened horizons, the art and culture that adolescents are exposed to”. However, he segues straight in, without evidence, to an assumption that these connections are powerful enough to “build a more level playing field with opportunity for everyone, regardless of their background”. He sings praises of the EBacc, but with its proposed compulsory 7 academic GCSEs this will not help broaden horizons or motivate through creative or vocational experience, because there may be time for none. And, to boost connections, it is good that £70 million will be made available for mentoring for 25,000 young people that most struggle. However, this is being channelled through a new private company and seems not to involve the existing skills councils. The emphasis seems to be on attracting ‘high flying role models’ rather than people who can offer nurturing, incremental and flexible support.

His fourth point: The importance of offering services to people in poverty with specific, treatable problems. Again, this is hard to dispute. But it is hard to see how it will be achieved with, for example, an erosion of mental health services for young people, and threats to the NHS. He spends much more time in his speech talking about Tiger Mums and discipline, and much less describing particular services to tackle individual trauma, stress, addiction, abuse or other issues.

So, young people may come out of school knowing the meaning of resilience, knowing some mindfulness strategies to roll with punches, and they might have had their aspirations raised from inspiring mentors. This is good.

But will they be able to afford university if the maintenance grant for poorer students has just been scrapped without debate, the terms of student loans can now be retrospectively altered and tuition fees have tripled since 2010? When the recent Green Paper for Higher Education reports that only 10% of disadvantaged white males attend HE, is it realistic to expect that tackling character will overcome this? Will any of this work actually affect the underlying structures that really are the root causes of poverty and its negative impacts of society?

In trying to suggest that compassionate Conservatism navigates between market and social solutions, Cameron does not convince us that there is any kind of vision of effective integration. The best kind of integrated solutions look to create the ‘means to thrive’ in young people. They are material without being materialistic, situated without defining people by their location or community, and address capacities rather than characteristics.

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