The only good parent is a wealthy one

Increasingly, just as poverty itself is linked to ignorance or moral failings, poor parenting is associated with being poor.

You could be forgiven for thinking there’s never been a better time to be growing up in poverty. Sure, things might look bad now but you’ll be okay. A crack team of financial and moral superiors have got your back. Whether it’s chips in front of a massive fucking telly or your rubbish teachers at your rubbish school, your betters are out there, fighting the good fight and defeating your foes.

Last week, in response to calls for children’s schooling to start later, Education Minister Elizabeth Truss was out on the frontline, reminding the experts to set aside their lefty bigotry/extensive research and just think of the children. In a piece for the Telegraph she compared disagreement with Conservative policy on early years education to simply not caring about “our poorest children”. The fact is, liberal airy-fairyness might be alright for some, butit’s letting down the most vulnerable amongst us:

“Kids from leafy suburbs might get a steady stream of educational activities in their early years. Or if they don’t, they might be able to cash in their parents’ connections and wealth later in life. Not everyone is so lucky. If education starts later, the children that need it most are the ones that lose out.”

See that, experts? See what you’ve done? Too busy thinking about children to remember that poor children are a special subset. They don’t get the same things rich children do. Without Truss-led intervention, they’re stuffed.

If Truss, Gove et al wish to suggest that education creates opportunity for the most disadvantaged, then I’d agree. I suspect many of those people in schools (formerly known as teachers) would. Nevertheless, there’s something disturbing about the way this is positioned. As the gap between rich and poor widens, it’s not enough to present sharp-elbowed parents in “leafy suburbs” with their “connections and wealth” as the only obstacles  standing in the way of the less well-off.  As long as we have a government which vilifies those without money (now no longer paid too little but simply not working enough) its members cannot claim to have the interests of such people’s offspring at heart.

Intervention to support poor children should not involve the sidelining of their parents. Increasingly, just as poverty itself is linked to ignorance or moral failings, poor parenting is associated with being poor. It becomes a kind of class colonialism. Truss might not literally propose taking disadvantaged children from their lacklustre parents, but the intimation is that only more time in the hands of the state can save them from their bitter destiny. The relationship between “the disadvantaged” and “the lucky” is not examined in any depth: it just is. And yet without a holistic approach to challenging inequality -- one that looks not just at education and nutrition, but at the economic and mental wellbeing of all people at all ages --- a focus on the children is a figleaf.

In discussions of child welfare no agency is accorded to parents who are not middle-class. “Parenting issues” – worrying about school places, homework, bullying, a healthy diet, future career – are seen as luxuries not everyone can afford. The poor, it seems, can’t worry about their children for themselves. They’re too busy being poor, therefore we need millionaire chefs and grammar-obsessed government ministers to take charge. It’s not that the solutions they offer are wrong in themselves, but within a broader context of inequality their overall impact can be anything but helpful.

I am not sure at what age a child becomes morally responsible for his or her privilege or lack of it. It’s not clear when “disadvantage” becomes “fecklessness”. We just know that one day it will. In the meantime, poverty starts to be seen as something impressed upon an individual by his or her carers.

The narrative of liberation through education is seductive, but it’s inadequate. It creates a world in which poor children become self-contained vessels into which politicians pour all of their equality rhetoric. Everyone knows that one day, these little bundles of potential will morph into devalued workers, parents and carers. They’ll have to stand aside for another generation of “potentially not poor” youngsters to take their place because no one with actual privilege is prepared to give an inch.

You cannot help children to thrive if you are simultaneously crushing the adults closest to them. The impact of low pay, benefit cuts, outsourcing and morale-crushing exclusion is not localised. Education should be a right, not a weak corrective for more extensive wrongs.

All parents should be in a position to exert a positive influence over their children’s lives. If poorer parents have been priced out of granting their children opportunities which can only be bought, we surely need to question not the parents, but how opportunity itself is functioning.

George Osborne visits a nursery school. Image: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.