I was very encouraged that the Prime Minister kicked this year offwith a speech that committed to giving ‘children with a tough start in life a better future’. Since then, he’s repeatedly returned to the ‘Life Chances’ theme –just yesterday promising careers mentoring for young people who are at risk of dropping out of school.
So far, however, there’s been little detail about how these promises are going to be delivered. And, as always, it’s in the detail that the devil lies.
The UK’s most disadvantaged children and their families desperately need help if they are to get ahead in life. Children’s opportunities are set from the cradle onwards, and are massively influenced by family circumstances. By the time they start school, poorer children can lag up to19 months behind in vocabulary.
Some of the Government’s ‘Life Chances’ commitments, if put into action, could genuinely provide families with the building blocks they need to turn children’s lives around. These include training to give disadvantaged youngsters a leg up onto the careers ladder, classes to help struggling parents brush up their skills, and good enough wages to make sure work pays.
Take the Prime Minister’s promise to step in and help disadvantaged young people start their careers.
The vulnerable young people we work with want to get on in life, but simply can’t get the quality training they need. Children who have been in care, for example, often do less well at school due to family disruption. Apprenticeships are often simply out of reach to them, because there’s such tough competition for placements. Once they start, they may struggle without the encouragement to complete the training.
Currently more than one in three apprenticeships go to workers aged 25 or older, many of whom already work. The Government has promised 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020. However, If the Government doesn’t step in to make sure they go to vulnerable young people, thenthem.
The Prime Minister’s focus on helping peoplebecome better parents is equally vital to boosting children’s opportunities.
We see struggling parents every day. Their intentions are overwhelmingly good, but some need help developing their skills – often because they’re following negative examples set by their own parents.
Barnardo’s knows the difference that parenting classes can make to young lives. A mum came to us recently because her 2 year old wasn’t talking. It became clear that she wasn’t playing or interacting with the child enough, as this is how she herself had been brought up. Workshops taught her how to play better with her son, and now he is talking.
I’m delighted that the government is considering giving all parents vouchers for such classes. An important step is ensuring that professionals are giving consistent messages, so that every ‘student’ is taught the same vision of good parenting.
Trusted, expert children’s centres are perfectly placed to deliver these classes. Parents trust these centres and staff know them intimately, so can reach out to those that need help most. Yet budgets for children centres have been cut by 35 per cent in the past five years. If funding dwindles further, it’s difficult to see how the parenting classes will be delivered.
It goes without saying that I applaud the government’s commitment to lifting children out of poverty, by making work pay. But I’m concerned that changes to the benefits system could undermine this goal.
The Welfare Reform and Work Bill will cut working benefits for larger families; a measure that kicks in under the new Universal Credit benefits system. It scraps the government’s duty to report on child poverty in low income families, instead focusing on “workless” families.
The fact is, however, thatmost (63 per cent) of the UK’s 3.7 million poor children live in families who are already employed. The government says that Universal Credit will help families keep more of their earnings, incentivising them to work. In reality, however, many families will lose 65p in benefits out of every extra pound they earn. The point at which benefits are taken away has been repeatedly lowered, so that now families are able to earn just £192 per week before they lose benefits.*
The budget provides the government with a golden opportunity to act on improving children’s life chances.
It can start by making sure that a proportion of the three million new apprenticeships are set aside for the most disadvantaged, particularly care leavers, so all young people have a good chance to get on the job ladder. The extra support they need could be funded through the apprenticeship levy.
It can ensure parenting initiatives are fully resourced, so that those raising the next generation have expert support from pregnancy onwards.
And it can ensure the new Universal Credit benefits system genuinely makes work pay for the poorest, so those families keep more of their wages.
The government must stand firm on its compassionate and sensible commitment to extending life chances right across our country. A generation of children and their parents are waiting for it to follow up its promises with action.