All politicians seem to revere social mobility as a policy objective, but, in my experience, very few fully grasp what this means, or have sat back to form a practical strategy that actually works. This in part explains the subtitle for my Poverty Review report: ‘preventing poor children becoming poor adults’.
In that report I set out an evidence-based strategy to combat class driven outcomes in childhood. We see this in the data: by age 3 class-based gaps in attainment emerge between richer and poorer children, and consequently when children arrive at school for the first time, poorer children have lower levels of attainment than their richer peers.
Although schools raise the performance level of all children, they do not close this attainment gap and so richer children tend to leave school with higher levels of attainment, and are therefore best placed to make best use of the opportunities which the world affords them.
Crucially, the evidence from the longitudinal studies shows that it is possible to predict by age five where children will end up in adulthood. The ‘x factor’, although in this case it is known, is having a good level of development at age 5.
The good news is that we know what good development looks like, and, even better, how to promote it. What we are not good at in Britain is translating this evidence into service provision. And the early years has, so far, not been an area to which politicians, with notable exceptions (David Blunkett to name just one), have given a lot of strategic thinking.
Therefore should not Labour’s next manifesto set an explicit goal to promote good child development? What can the state do to advance this?
I recommend that a new Foundation Years education infrastructure be created which would coalesce all early years services into one structure to make it more effective and self reinforcing. At present a whole host of parties are responsible: midwives, sure start, health visitors and ‘childcare settings’, yet these institutions do not always work well together and are often reactive rather than proactive.
A new infrastructure, locally driven, would provide a seamless service to children, parents and parents to be, and would work towards promoting good development, particularly for poorer children. Where issues arise, interventions would quickly be put in place, and parents would be supported to create the best home learning environment possible.
Existing budgets would therefore be better used to ensure the circumstances of a person’s birth no longer determine their lifetime achievements.
Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead.
This article was originally published in the Fabian Society’s Summer edition of the Fabian Review. It forms part of the Fabian Society’s Next State project. We’ll be publishing other articles from the series this week.