Frank Field's report - what it is and what it isn't
Those hoping that Frank Field would think the unthinkable in his report for the government on poverty and life chances must surely be disappointed.
By placing such importance on the early years of childhood – the Foundation Years, as Field wants us to call them – his report is an affirmation of Labour’s Sure Start programme and the Children’s Centres that grew from it. Instead of the rupture that something hitherto unthinkable would constitute, Field’s report offers continuity and in places, perhaps even progress too.
It is in this continuity that the report’s strength lies. Labour’s Early Years strategy was both led by research and was also the subject of it. Policy, practice and the reflection upon it went, probably as far as is possible in reality, hand in hand. The importance of the first five year’s of a child’s life is now received wisdom. Before 1997 it was not.
If the switch of name to Foundation Years looks like a gimmick, the symbolism nevertheless matters. If the Coalition adopts Field’s recommendation that a Cabinet minister should be appointed for the Foundation Years, the symbolism will be accompanied by real power. In his endorsement of Children’s Centres, Field has placed an obstacle in the path of those who would close them as part of the cuts. If the Coalition supports Field, that obstacle could become insuperable.
What Field’s report does not offer, however, is an approach to child poverty to put in place of Labour’s. Field’s report certainly has something to say about poverty. But in order not to be misled, it is vital to be clear about exactly what Field’s report is about and – what it is not.
First, as critics of ‘child poverty’ are fond of pointing out, children are in poverty because their parents are in poverty. A Foundation Years strategy focused on the child is dealing with the consequences of poverty today, with the intention of breaking the link between that poverty now and poverty 20 or more years hence. Nothing wrong with that but a strategy that deals with today’s consequences is not the same as one that deals with today’s causes.
Second, if you want to know why this child is in poverty but that child is not, then the early years experience (of their parents) is bound to be a contributory factor, possibly even an important one.
But if, instead, you want to know why a significant minority of children are in poverty in our country, it is the systemic factors, mainly economic, that matter. They include things like the level of employment, the division of paid labour between men and women, the share of national income going to wages and salaries, the availability and affordability of housing, the strength and scope of social and private safety nets, and so on.
Only a report that puts matters like these at its heart can claim to be addressing child poverty in a way that represents a true alternative to the last government’s often flawed approach. Field’s report does no such thing.
Field’s report also carries other dangers. Its recommendation that Children’s Centres ‘should re-focus on their original purpose and identify, reach and provide targeted help to the most disadvantaged families’ (my emphasis) opens the door to cuts in services for those deemed to be merely ‘ordinarily’ disadvantaged. While the Treasury will welcome this, it is not only deeply divisive but also threatens to stigmatise the Centres and those who use them.
In line with this Treasury-friendly approach, the report is long on calls for raising the quality and status of the Foundation Years but short on specifics as to the resources needed to achieve that. The report’s idea of diverting money towards the Foundation Years away from above-inflation increases in benefits for children is an arguable proposition either way. The big question, however, is whether such sums would be remotely sufficient to realise the report’s ambitions.
Worst of all, even in its own terms, the exclusive focus on the early years not only means that this report has nothing to offer almost any child already born (given the time it takes to implement changes) but is also a recipe for failure. For what we are being asked to believe is that interventions before and up to the age of five can be so strong as to overcome all subsequent distractions, disappointments and disadvantages that a child may experience over say the next 20 years until they in turn become a parent. Besides being utterly incredible, such a proposition allows every other institution with whom this person will have contact during the next 20 years completely off the hook.
Despite some of the goods things it may says about early years, Field’s report is a major retreat, both in scope and in terms of where it conceives of responsibility for poverty lying.