Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Hilary Land, Professor of Family Policy and Child Welfare and

J A Lord, School Policy Studies University of Bristol


Good advice and encouragement to enable claimants to move from Income Support into paid employment is welcome. However there are a number of issues to be addressed if claimants lives are to be improved by making this transition. This memorandum addresses those concerning lone parents.

  • Timing

      Three months after becoming a claimant may be too early. Lone parenthood is usually the result of a breakdown of a relationship. Adjustments to this are complex.

      (1)  Some will hope the breakdown is not irretrievable and therefore will not have begun to adjust.

      (2)  Moving housing or even homelessness often follows family breakdown. Financial settlement following divorce may not be complete.

      (3)  Parents will need and want to give their children first priority in helping them accept and settle into new circumstances which may include new house and new school.

      (4)  Three months is a very short time to adjust to being a mother for the first time even for those with a supportive partner and family.

        There should be some choice over the timing of the interview, say within the first 12 months.

  • Compulsion represents a change in culture for lone mothers on benefit who hitherto have had a choice about when to return to employment. Cultural shifts take time to make.
  • Training and education must also be discussed otherwise lone mothers, 40 per cent of whom are unqualified, will go into low paid jobs and remain trapped in them. Welfare-to-education as well as welfare-to-work is needed. Success measures should include numbers going into suitable education and training as well as numbers getting employment.
  • A narrow emphasis on paid work could undermine the value the mothers themselves place on being good mothers. However, paradoxically, it is precisely because of their experience of motherhood and wanting to be responsible mothers that many mothers want to better themselves by gaining qualifications and getting a better job.


The policy to facilitate Income Support recipients' movement off benefit and into paid employment is a welcome one. Good advice and encouragement is important to the principle of the "single gateway" and providing an interview with an advisor is sound. However, there are some issues concerning its implementation and measure of success which need careful consideration particularly for some groups of claimants. This memorandum addresses those concerning lone parents.

1. Timing

The routes into lone parenthood vary. Although the proportion of never-married mothers among lone mothers has grown in the past ten years, the proportion of pregnant women who have a child(ren) on their own has remained remarkably constant over the past thirty years (see Kiernan, Land and Lewis 1998). In other words lone parenthood is usually the result of the breakdown or end of a relationship. Whether this is caused by death, divorce or desertion, three months is a very short time in which to make an adjustment. First, some will not have accepted that they are lone mothers and will be hoping for a reunion—which in some cases will occur. Second, divorce and separation may be followed by moving house or even homelessness. A study conducted in 1995 found that 30 per cent of lone parents had experienced homelessness in the previous ten years and over a fifth had been accepted as homeless by the local authority. (Social Trends, No 28, 1998). Settling children into a new home and possibly new schools has to take priority in the parent's time and attention. Third, the financial arrangements following the break up of a relationship may not have been settled and finalised. Fourth, three months is a very short time to come to terms with being a mother for the first time. For a young woman who expected to have a partner but finds herself alone with a new born baby, the adjustment is even harder.

2. Compulsion is unfortunate and the personal job advisers will need to handle the interviews with great skill and sensitivity. This will require appropriate training and experience. Compulsion to attend an interview to discuss taking a job is a shift in culture as far as mothers are concerned. Policy since 1948 has been based at least in theory, on giving women with children, including those on benefit, a choice about when they should take up or return to employment. Duncan and Edwards recent research shows that mothers from different ethnic and cultural groups make different choices. Hunt's studies conducted for the Finer Committee on one parent families nearly thirty years ago found similar differences. (Hunt, 1973). In other words the ways in which mothers combine the responsibility for children with paid employment reflect long standing values and attitudes towards what constitutes a "good mother". The failure of the Child Support Agency to change quickly attitudes towards the responsibilities of fathers should serve as a warning against expecting rapid change.

3. The scope of the interview should be wide enough to include a discussion of training and education. It is regrettable that the national child care campaign is focused so heavily on mothers in employment. Parents in education needing assistance with child care have very little support by comparison. The New Deal for lone mothers has far fewer opportunities for education and training in the scheme than the New Deal for young people. Welfare to education is just as important as a welfare to work programme, especially for lone mothers, 40 per cent of whom have no educational qualifications and today, compared with married mothers are much less likely to be qualified. Thirty years ago there was less difference in this respect between these two groups and lone mothers were more likely to be in employment than married mothers.

4. Many lone mothers wish to return to employment but not before acquiring qualifications which will enable them to get a better job. The recent research on the grant holders of the Elizabeth Nuffield Educational Fund shows this very clearly.1 Since the early 1980s the ENEF has been all but overwhelmed by applications from mature women returning to education for the first time since leaving school and taking courses which constitute only the first or second rung on the qualification ladder. Despite a general rise in the proportion of young women who leave school with some qualifications, ENEF has seen a steep rise in the numbers of applicants who have either no qualifications or unusually low grade ones. The women most likely to come into this category are lone mothers. The courses for which they enrol normally in FE, have included GCSE, A Level, NVQ, Access and a variety of vocational diplomas—mostly in health and welfare, elementary information technology, fashion, tourism and catering—which can act as end qualifications or as building blocks towards HE.

Many of the women in our study were written off as educational no hopers at school. For some their under-achievement was the result of individual disasters such as teenage pregnancy, ill health, family dislocation, physical or sexual abuse or undiagnosed special needs. For others, it can be accounted for by the still commonplace process of gender, class and ethnic stereotyping, often in combination, and usually compounded by non-existent or abysmally poor careers advice. The same stereotyping processes explain the failure of many with decent school leaving examination passes to build on them in early adult life. It is clear that for many underachieving women motherhood had seemed the only adult achievement open to them.

ENEF award holders return to education primarily through a change in their life circumstances. The impetus may come from divorce, bereavement, unemployment becoming a refugee or some other "life event". Overwhelmingly, however, it arises out of the responsibilities of motherhood, particularly if that also entails lone parenthood when the relationship within which children were born breaks down—and it is increasingly common for abuse to be a factor in this. Women, even the many with low self esteem, then seek qualification in order to improve the quality of their children's lives. Although lone mothers constitute the majority of current ENEF award holders the group of married or cohabiting women with children (21 per cent in 1995-97) share most of the characteristics of lone mothers, including the need to start in low level FE courses. (Since 1995, 41 per cent of all women with children who received ENEF awards either had no qualifications or between 1 and 4 GCSE passes at D to G grades while further 24 per cent had between one and four GCSE passes at C or above. The married women also share with lone mothers the likelihood of experiencing acute financial hardship with studying since most of them have partners who are unable to support the family for reasons which include ill health and long term unemployment.)

The mature women whom ENEF helps are typically moving from deprived socio-economic circumstances via a period of acute financial privation and debt while they study, towards the only modestly remunerated and heavily feminised sector of the health and welfare professions and semi-professions. As a rule they choose courses and careers to fit around the needs of children and/or partners and to serve their own communities: many say they wanted to help people like themselves. They normally attend their local FE colleges and universities. They choose what is practical and seldom have the luxury of opting for a course for its intellectual interest or a university for its status or its beautiful architecture. Most who progress from FE to HE attend the post 1992 universities. Many of our award holders find that the encouragement and achievement they experience in a low level FE course gives them the confidence to progress further. Not a few, however, discover that the first qualification they gain does not increase their employability and have to embark on further courses for which they neither planned not budgeted. It is urgent to improve course and careers guidance in FE to help such women negotiate the maze of potential pathways. The job search interview should include such advice.

5. The study2 illustrated the ways in which the school system had failed these women as a result of which they had low expectations. These are quotes from the interviews.

  • ... Telephonists for girls and something else for boys. I didn't have any ambitions then really. And then I fell pregnant and I thought I'll just be a mother. I accepted it, I didn't think about careers. I did want to be a teacher at one stage because I thought I could do better, but that just went somewhere deep inside my head, it didn't surface until I had my daughter... over the years I'd been doing little menial jobs and I was getting fed up, I'd lost my identity somewhere along the line, I was someone's mother and someone's partner and I didn't know where I was any more, and I got fed up with it...
  • ... The school wasn't interested. The language teacher told my father on the first parents evening that I was a nobody and would always be a nobody. Pretty drastic. Dreadful...
  • ... I asked one of my teachers for help with maths... he said—Oh, you don't want to worry about that dear, you're only going to get married and have children. At ten!

... There were people with sharpened combs on the back stairs (of the school). I went into my shell and hid behind the Guardian for six years... I got four O levels... I was determined never to have anything to do with education ever again....

  • ... When we were 14, we were advised to take a secretarial course... and we had to drop the academic subjects. Maths I was always good at but I wasn't allowed to take it at GCSE, just the boys. That can be verified!

6. The experience of motherhood changed their view of themselves and changed their priorities.

  • ... I had a certificate of childcare... which I was told was the equivalent of an NNEB, but it wasn't... I looked at myself and I thought, something's got to be done or I'll never get a decent job...
  • ... Mum, what are you doing?" "I'm, getting a better life for myself, and if it's a better life for me, it's a better life for you"... A role model for them.

7. The women in the ENEF study were not necessarily typical. However, their experiences illustrate the diversity of mothers' lives, the need to be sensitive to and respectful of their judgements about what is the best way to combine education and employment with their family responsibilities. If the Single Gateway emphasises only paid employment then it will undermine the value of the very experience, i.e. being a mother, which motivates women to move off benefit and make a better life for themselves and their children.

Hilary Land

Professor of Family Policy and Child Welfare

May 1999


Duncan, S and Edwards, R. (1999) Lone Mothers, paid work and gendered moral rationalities, Macmillan

Hunt, A (1973) Families and Their Needs HMSO,

Kiernan, K., Land, H. and Lewis, J. (1998) Lone Motherhood in Twentieth Century Britain, Oxford University Press

The research was conducted by Bernice Martin and Stephanie Spencer as well as Hilary Land. It was funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

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