Welfare Reform and Work Bill Committee

Written evidence submitted by Action for Children (WRW 37)

 

Summary

· The introduction of a Life Chances Act can support a more holistic approach to tackling poverty. However, the definition of life chances in the Bill overlooks the crucial development period of birth to age five. Educational deficits emerge early in children’s lives, even before entry into school, and widen throughout childhood. [1]

· The number of children living in poverty in the UK is set to rise by 2020. Improving the life chances of future generations must be underpinned by security – ensuring the material basic of a decent childhood are in place. To do this effectively, the income measures and targets set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010 should be retained. They recognise how financial security effects children’s everyday experiences, and impact opportunities to grow up healthy and learn.

About Action for Children

1. Action for Children supports over 300,000 children and families each year through 650 services across the UK. As a pioneer of the early help approach, we have a track record of success in delivering truly integrated services and improving children’s life chances.

2. Action for Children are a member of the End Child Poverty Coalition which works to hold the Government, and all main political parties, to account for their commitment to eradicate child poverty in the UK.

A Life Chances Act

3. The Government’s intention to expand the understanding of poverty has merit. The inclusion of reporting obligations at the end of Key Stage 4 as part of a new Life Chances Act shows an understanding of the link between a good education and positive outcomes in later life.

4. However, Clause 4 only requires the Secretary of State to report on educational attainment at Key Stage 4 (age 16). A Life Chances Act that doesn’t include milestones throughout a child’s life will mean that vital developmental stages in the early years will be missed.

5. The early years are a crucial developmental period. Evidence demonstrates the rapid brain development in the first two years of a child’s life provides the foundations for their future health and wellbeing. [1]

6. Development in the early years is strongly associated with positive outcomes in later life. Cognitive ability in the early years is highly predictive of subsequent achievement, with a strong relationship to educational success at school and income at age 30. [2]

7. Children who are failing behind at age five face an uphill challenge to catch up. Children who arrive at primary school in the bottom range of ability tend to stay there. Research shows that over half (55 per cent) of children who are in their bottom 20 per cent of attainment at age seven (Key Stage 1) remain there at age 16 (Key Stage 4). [3]

8. The importance of the early years to future educational attainment and outcomes means this period should be included in a Life Chances Act. However, there is a critical debate to be had about whether a duty to measure and report can ever be a driver of change without associated targets.

9. Keeping income as a central part of a Life Chances Act would increase the likelihood of children achieving good educational attainment, and going on to successfully engage in training and employment. Research shows that parents on low incomes may have more negative attitudes to education, not have the time to engage with schools and be unable to provide the physical environment to support study. [4] Parents’ involvement in their children’s education is directly related to their outcomes, as involvement increases, so does attainment. [5]

Retaining the Child Poverty Act targets

10. The Child Poverty Act 2010 sets out a legal obligation for Government to reduce the number of children living in relative poverty to 1.3 million by 2020. [6] However, under the current measure of poverty (before housing costs) there were 2.3 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2013-14 and the number is set to rise to 3.0 million by 2020. [7]

11. Targets and measures provide accountability and create a legal requirement for Government to tackle child poverty. The measures included in the Child Poverty Act 2010 emerged from considerable consultation and consideration by HM Treasury. The four measures in the Act, relative and absolute poverty, material deprivation and persistent poverty are included because they recognise the damage a lack of resources can have on children’s wellbeing and how it can effect their life chances.

12. Research shows that growing up without financial security can significantly affect children’s wider outcomes. It has a strong relationship with educational prospects, health and wellbeing. [8] It influences children’s environment, and can lead to them experiencing stigma and anxiety. [9] Parents in poverty may struggle to provide a warm and nurturing environment for children due to the pressures of living on a low income and dealing with debt. The associated stresses of poor mental and physical health, unstable and inadequate housing and poor relationships can impact their capacity to parent. [10]

13. We cannot ignore the lived experience of child poverty in the here and now. We know that a combination of approaches is needed to tackle the scale and impact of poverty, including measures that provide children with financial security a s well as reduce the unfairness of inequality by increasing social mobility.

14. Rather than scrapping the measures and targets in the Child Poverty Act 2010, this Bill should build on them to form the basis of a new life chances approach. We would like to see an approach which addresses the immediate problems caused by low income and has one eye to the future to break cycles of intergenerational poverty.

Conclusion

15. The care and nurture children receive in the earliest years of their life provides the building blocks for them to succeed at school, and throughout adulthood.

16. A Life Chances Act must require the Secretary of State to report on developmental milestones throughout childhood, with a focus on the early years. However, there is a critical debate to be had about whether a duty to measure and report can ever be a driver of change without associated targets.

17. In addition, w e urge the Government to take a twin track approach . Improving the life chances of future generations must be underpinned by security – ensuring the material basic of a decent childhood are in place. To do this effectively, the income measures and targets set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010 should be retained . They recognise how financial security effects children’s every day experiences, as well as impact upon opportunities to grow up healthy, lear n and grow. Without the dual focus, we are concerned that the future we should strive towards for all children will not be reached.

September 2015


[1] Gregg, G., (2010) Poorer children’s educational attainment: how important are attitudes and behaviour? York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

[1] Perry BD, 2002, Childhood experience and the expression of genetic potential: what childhood neglect tells us about nature and nurture. Brain and Mind 3: 79100; cited in the Marmot review

[2] Feinstein, L., (2006) ‘Development in the early years: its importance for school performance and adult outcomes’ in Wider Benefits of Learning Research Report No.20.

[3] Frank Field (2010)The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults. London: HM Government

[4] Katz I, Corylon J, La Plaza V, 2008, The relationship between parenting and poverty. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

[5] Blanden J,2 2006, ‘Bucking the trend’: What enables those who are disadvantaged in childhood to succeed later in life? Department of Work and Pensons.

[6] The Department for Work and Pensions (2015) Households Below Average Income, An analysis of the income distribution 1994/95 – 2013/14, Tables 4a and 4b. London: Department for Work and Pensions.

[7] Institute of Fiscal Studies, 2011 Child and working age poverty form 2010 to 2020

[8] Cooper, K., Stewart, K., (2013) Does Money Affect Children’s Outcomes? A Systematic Review. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

[9] Ridge, T., (2009) Living with poverty: a review of the literature on children and families’ experience of poverty. London: Department for Work and Pensions.

[10] Featherstone B, White s and Morris K, 2012, Reimagining Child Protection. Towards humane social work with families. Policy Press.

Prepared 18th September 2015