Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-82)


9 JUNE 2008

  Q80 Fiona Mactaggart: In the Opportunity for All report, which I referred to earlier and you helpfully said that you would consider whether it would be possible to give that sort of comprehensive information for 2007, there are figures for the most deprived children, for children in other areas and for development attainment, including social and emotional aspects of learning. It seems from those figures, although they are provisional for 2006, that the gap is not narrowing and may be widening. It is difficult to work out.

  Ed Balls: It is certainly the case that there are some real issues in terms of children and young people with mental health issues that need to be addressed, and we are reviewing that at the moment in the child and adolescent mental health services review. We have just moved, since last September, to encourage all secondary schools, with funding for the provision of social and emotional aspects of learning and teaching. It is similar to the issue of extended schooling. I do not think we know at the moment how many primary and secondary schools are providing such teaching, but we are embarking on measuring, area by area and school by school, not just standards, but children's well-being, and that will become part of the Ofsted assessment and accountability regime, so that we will be able to see, first, the schools that are playing their part in addressing those wider well-being issues, and secondly the areas in which other children's services are not doing enough to support schools or where we do not have the sort of school parental links that we would like. The shift into measuring and holding the system to account for progress in child well-being is exciting. We are at an early stage, but that is one of the consequences of the children's plan that we are taking forward.

  Q81 Chairman: This has been a very good session, but I have one final question. We have been to Merton. We were investigating looked-after children and our most vulnerable children, and we went to a local authority whose prime aim is to keep children out of care. It is one of the most successful in the country, and has an amazingly interesting intervention system. As soon as a family seems to be breaking up and becoming dysfunctional, they move in in a very powerful way. It is a very interesting model. As soon as a child goes into care, on all the criteria of life chance, they dramatically drop. All the evidence that I was reading for this particular session suggests that as soon as you envisage a one-parent family for a child, you have to consider the likelihood of them being under-achieving and in poverty. I know that this is a challenging area, but do we do enough to support families to keep together?

  Ed Balls: That is a very interesting question and, to be honest, we will probably answer that in our different ways. Beverley is leading a piece of work on the ways in which our new Department is considering supporting families. We know that the family, and parental support, have by far the biggest impact on a child's life chances and that the quality of relationship within families matters a great deal to children's outcomes. That is the relationship between the mother and father, single parent and partner, and grandparents as well. The adult relationship impacts on children. We have thought a lot about the way in which we use the work-life balance. For example, we have considered the right to parental time off for mothers and fathers, flexible working and the right to ask about such working. We have thought a lot about giving flexibility and support to parents. Getting those things right, and the impact that that can have on the relationship between the parents, can have an important knock-on impact on outcomes for children. We are considering what more we can do to support parents and their relationships because of the benefits that can then accrue to children and their well-being.

  Q82 Chairman: Is it almost politically incorrect to consider that issue?

  Ed Balls: The opposite. We are considering it at the moment for precisely that reason.

  James Purnell: That is right. Clearly, we have to focus on how we can keep families together. As Ed has just outlined, there is a huge amount of work under way on that issue. You will also always want a safety net to help all families whatever their circumstances. The point that you make is the very reason why we have had a focus on helping lone parents as well as other types of families. That is why we are proud of the fact that there has been a 12.5% increase in the proportion of lone parents in work. You have to have early intervention and support—what the state can do—to help families stay together, and then a safety net that helps everybody, in particular those in the greatest needs. That underlines my final point on the inter-relation between welfare reform and child poverty. You could take an approach in which you say that the way to get parents into work is to say that they are poor if they are on benefits—picking up on Paul's point, the way in which to deal with better-off-in-work issues is to say, "Children will be poor if their parents are not working." Indeed, that is what some countries do. We reject that. We say explicitly that we want to take all families out of poverty, and eradicate child poverty in that way. Once we have such a generous welfare system, the opposite mistake is to say that there is no conditionality in the system. We would have people who end up not being in work, when being in work would be the best thing for them. There is a direct relationship between a relatively generous welfare state and one that has significant conditionality. That is how to make sure that people get into work and have the advantages of work, which is why the lone parent changes will lift 70,000 children out of poverty. It is worth saying that, when people get into work, they progress and make further strides in respect of their income. As for the employment retention and advancement pilot to which I referred, when we consider the incomes of lone parents who have gone into work a year later or perhaps a bit more, their incomes make them something like a quarter or fifth better off. Being in work is good for people's incomes. It is good for child poverty. It is good for all the points that Stephen made about self-esteem, too. If we want to tackle child poverty, we have to put welfare reform alongside it to make a relatively generous welfare state possible.

  Chairman: We have had a good innings. Thank you very much for your attention. I do not know what a clutch of Ministers is called, but it has been good on our side. Thank you for your patience. It has been a long sitting.

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