"It doesn’t matter how much money we put into education if parents don’t parent." Barack Obama was talking about America, of course. But his words, from a speech given last year, go to the heart of a profound dilemma for progressive politics on this side of the Atlantic, too: how to equalise life chances for children when it is parents who hold the key.
Labour strategists are already plotting a spring offensive on public services. But if they are serious about fairness and social mobility, ministers need to pay greater attention to the true generators of welfare and opportunity: mothers and fathers. Public sector institutions are engaged in an ultimately futile attempt to compensate for the vast inequalities in the quality of parenting.
Individual life chances are profoundly and increasingly influenced by a range of attributes - a capacity for hard work, a sense of personal agency, an acceptance of responsibility. Such attributes, or character traits, are acquired early in life, and mostly at the hands of our parents. By focusing on the later years, the government is sticking to a welfare approach that offers too little, too late.
"Character" is shorthand for the bundle of personal strengths required for a flourishing life. Some people, particularly those on the political left, are not comfortable with the idea that character determines a person's life chances. This springs from a fear of passing judgement: of saying, in effect, that someone's character flaws explain their impoverished life chances. Social democrats are more comfortable with economic explanations of disadvantage. It is a controversial area, as anyone researching or writing on the subject can testify, though many critics would have no problem taking up a "character reference" for a potential employee.
But there is no escaping the facts. The guru of early years studies, Leon Feinstein, from the Institute of Education, reports that a child's level of "application" - defined as dedication and a capacity for concentration - at the age of ten has a much bigger impact on earnings 20 years later than their ability in maths. A sense of personal agency - or what the analysts call "internal locus of control" - at the age of ten is more important to future chances than reading skills.
The increasing importance of character would matter less if character development were equal. But in recent years, the ability of low-income parents to instil these vital traits in their children has diminished, relative to more affluent families. This is doubly unfortunate, since character is a crucial part of the social escape kit for someone from an impoverished background. A high level of application was three times more influential for life chances for a person born in 1970 to a low-income family, than for someone from an affluent back- ground. Character is not a concern for Victorian conservatives, it is a central issue for 21st-century social justice.
As the primary incubators of character, parents should therefore be at the heart of any restructured welfare system. A successful assault on the cancer of unequal opportunities requires a wholesale redistribution of resources to the early years, and a courageous series of interventions to improve the quality of parenting in our society.
The politics of this is treacherous – consider the force of the phrase “the nanny state”. The involvement of the state in family life has always been the most difficult area of political philosopy, and of political practice, since Plato. But if we are serious about improving social mobility, this is a bullet that can’t be dodged. From the moment they are born, children from poor backgrounds suffer relative to their more affluent peers.
By the time they start school at five, middle-class children with low scores in cognitive ability tests at 22 months have just about caught up with bright poorer children, and soon overtake them - as the graph shows. Of course, the education system should do a better job of tackling these inequalities. But by the time the average poor child hangs up his or her coat on the first day at school, the teacher has to redirect a well-established trajectory of disadvantage.
Evidence of the huge impact of the early years is well understood in Whitehall and among thoughtful ministers. But there has been no overhaul of funding priorities: we continue to spend three times as much on a university student - and students remain overwhelmingly middle-class - as on a pre-school child. Rather than throwing money at the problem, we are throwing money at the results of the problem.
The recent social mobility white paper offered little hope of greater radicalism, containing twice as many policy announcements on apprentices, universities and jobs as on the early years. Policy intrudes in the cycle of disadvantage at the wrong time, too late to alter the destinies of most children.
This is not to say that the government has been entirely inactive on the pre-school front. Rights to free nursery places for all three- and four-year-olds, £3bn a year on Sure Start centres providing a range of child-centred activity, a Bookstart scheme to encourage reading. And for school-age children, the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning programme has been introduced.
But these do not strike at the heart of the issue, which is how to equip more parents to help their children develop the character traits, or "soft skills", that are essential for a successful life. Material deprivation can certainly make it harder to parent well, but the fact is that while low-income parents are more likely to struggle to raise their kids well, the principal problem is seldom lack of money.
"Financial poverty is a factor, but not a central one," says Stephen Scott, professor of child health and behaviour at King's College London. "But I am fond of saying 'poverty of what?'. And actually it seems to be poverty of the parent-child experience . . . that leads to poor child outcomes rather than poverty of a material kind." According to Scott, it is "warm, encircling" relationships with parents that make the difference.
A 2007 study for the Department for Children, Schools and Families noted that "the magnitude of the effects of parental income are arguably quite small"[sic]. It is the social rather than material environment that makes the principal difference. The Effective Pre-School and Primary Education (EPPE) study shows that the "home learning" climate strongly predicts cognitive attainment at the age of ten - after five full years in primary school. The parenting styles that help to promote the development of character are marked by warmth and interest; stability; authority without hostility; and consistency. These tend to be handed down, along with the fraying baby books, from generation to generation. A poorly raised child is more likely to be a poor parent. This is one of the driving factors behind the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage that seems so intractable.
Labour can be proud of its assault on inequality since 1997. But the existing tools - cash redistribution, educational reform - are being blunted by the intractable differences in early childhood. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, progress on 42 out of 56 indicators of social exclusion has stalled or worsened since 2002. What is required now is a wide-ranging, substantial investment in improving the quality of parenting.
So far the government has focused on the few thousand families where children are at immediate risk of harm from their parents. The Family Intervention Project - set to be expanded to target 20,000 families by 2011 - consists of highly intensive interventions for families on the edge: where the parents are drug addicts; prolific and longstanding offenders, or in prison; or involved in local gun, gang and knife crime. It is a valuable programme. But 20,000 families represents a drop in the ocean - just one in 1,000 families. The expansion of another programme, providing home visits by a nurse to first-time mothers in deprived areas, is similarly welcome. But again, it is focused on children facing significant risks, such as drug-addicted, alcoholic or abusive parents.
The bigger challenge is to help the millions of parents who are not directly threatening their children, but are nonetheless damaging their long-term life chances by raising them poorly. Targeted interventions often seem to make the most sense in terms of making the best use of limited resources. But precisely because they are targeted, they run the risk of creating a stigma. The targeted approach is based on the myth that parenting is something that comes naturally to the vast majority, with a small minority having no clue whatsoever. But bringing up children is a skill. It is something we can all be better or worse at.
It is time to think of support for parenting as a new universal arm of the welfare state. We need a National Parents’ Service alongside the NHS. There are some small steps that could be taken quickly: in 2007 the Australian government produced a DVD on parenting called Raising Children, which was originally intended to be free to order. Demand was so high that ministers decided to send it to every family on the birth of their child. Parents seem increasingly willing to seek support: ParentLine Plus, the newly established UK helpline for parents, took 112,970 calls last year. Half of all parents, regardless of social background, express an interest in attending parenting classes.
Research on interventions to help parents suggests that it is a cost-effective way of generating positive outcomes for children: better behaviour, higher school attendance, with lower rates of crime, drug use and teenage pregnancy. Even parents forced to attend under a Parenting Order, which were introduced in 1998, see an improvement in their performance as parents - and most are glad, in retrospect, to have participated in the programmes.
Parenting classes need to become the norm rather than the exception. There is even an argument for making attendance universal and compulsory: the freedom to mess up your children's life is not one which proper liberals set too much store by. But compulsion would clearly be politically impossible, and probably unnecessary.
The insights of behavioural economics - the "nudgeonomics" popularised last year by Professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein - should be put to work. Parents could be automatically enrolled into a voluntary parenting class, either when their first child has its first birthday or is due for a vaccination. In fact, vaccinations are a good example of creating a social norm: nobody is forced to get their children the jabs, but - even after the MMR debacle - most do.
There is clearly more work to be done to establish the scope and nature of a new parenting service. But we need urgently to address the root causes of disadvantage and both invest more in - and ask more of - today's parents. It is easier and more politically palatable today to tinker at the edges. But only a new politics of parenting holds out any real hope of a fairer society tomorrow.
Sonia Sodha is head of capabilities at Demos; Richard Reeves is director: http://www.demos.co.uk/capabilities