Early Years

On an inner city estate, side by side, live two families. Both are on benefits, both are cramming four children into a two bedroom flat. One family have scrimped and saved to afford extra tuition for their children, the mother reads with the kids every night and homework is done carefully and checked. Only once all school work is done are the children allowed to play computer games or watch television. The mum scours charity shops for second-hand books.  Every Sunday the whole family go to church. Recently, to much rejoicing, the eldest son got a place at an oversubscribed grammar school; now the pressure is on for his sister to follow suit. 

Next door, life is rather different.  The children play Xbox most of the time and the 52inch plasma telly is rarely switched off.  At 9pm the eldest boy is often to be seen riding his bike around the estate, unsupervised.  Mum has been in and out of prison so her mother is often left in charge. The children miss more school than they should and when they do make it look tired and haven’t had breakfast. Their teachers are worried about their grunting speech, tendency to use pencils as weapons and lack of self control. The elder child is in danger of being excluded.

The differences in these two families demonstrate the importance of good parenting to a child’s life chances and how inculcating the kind of values, social skills and behaviours necessary for moving up the social ladder, or, indeed leading a successful life, cannot be achieved just by throwing more government money at the problem.

Last week, the All Party Parliamentary Select Committee published an interim report into social mobility in Britain. It makes for depressing reading. Today’s 40-somethings (born in 1970) have shown less social mobility than those born in the 1950s. Clever children born to poor parents are less likely to do well in Britain than similar children in other OECD countries; when it comes to social mobility we lag far behind countries such as Australia, Finland, Denmark and Germany.

In Britain, the socio-economic circumstances of the family at the child’s birth are the biggest factor in the baby’s life trajectory. This correlation is not nearly as strong in the other countries and one crucial factor is how effective early years educators are. Despite our belief that we are a modern country in which all are born equal and have equal chances, the data reveals that is an illusion – privilege is becoming more rather than less entrenched. The report reveals that while only  7% of Britons are privately educated, 70% of High Court Judges, 54% of FTSE 100 CEOs and top journalists and 51% of top medics went to fee-paying schools.  The Sutton Trust has calculated that Britain’s social mobility failure costs us the equivalent of 4% points of GDP growth: “studies suggest that reaching international benchmarks for social mobility could be worth the equivalent of £150billion per annum,” trumpets the Parliamentary report.

But this is not a new problem. The last government threw enormous resources at trying to help the poorest in our society: a mighty £150 billion was spent mainly on tax transfers to try to eradicate poverty. Further fortunes were spent on Sure Start, the government scheme intended to ensure that all families got the help they needed to ensure their children were ‘school ready’ by the age of five. The accent on early years is the right one; “the point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between the ages of 0 and 3, primarily in the home” according to the report. Yet Sure Start has failed to reach many of ‘hard-to-reach’ families who need that help most and has no national framework to measure its outcomes.  The gap between haves and have-nots opens terrifyingly early; the Millennium Cohort Study discovered that toddlers’ test scores vary dramatically by their parents socio-economic group. By the time a middle class child reaches school he or she will have heard 37million more words than the poorest. Those early years are crucial, babies are like sponges, learning by mirroring their parents, their brains develop by being talked to, stimulated and loved. “Anything we do after the age of five is just rescue work,” says Frank Field MP, part of the parliamentary committee and a long-time crusader to improve the lifechances of the most deprived. “By then the life-trajectory is set.” He believes passionately that the way to help solve our social mobility problems in Britain is not just to throw money at the problem but to start a parenting revolution.  In his constituency he has set up the Birkenhead Education Trust, involving 50 schools, where all children will learn parenting skills. Science lessons will involve baby brain development, maths will be about how to balance a weekly budget. Emphasis will be put on teaching self-control and deferred gratification – the keystones of success in later life.

The children, he meets, he says are desperate to learn how to be good parents. The schools in the project are also devising new home/school contracts signed at a ceremony and based on what he calls a “social highway code”. Field explains that codes of behaviour, values and ideas about what is and what is not acceptable have so eroded in many of our poorest communities that they need restating along with parenting skills.“We need a campaign like the five-a-day one for healthy eating around good parenting,” he says. “I want to introduce the notion of a five-star parent: you get one star for getting up, washed and dressed and getting your kid to school on time. Another star for reading to your child every day, another for teaching them about delayed gratification and so on.” He believes our instant gratification consumer culture has wiped out that crucial life skill doing something boring in the short-term for a longer-term gain. Old parenting clichés about being ‘cruel to be kind’ or ‘eat up your greens’ or ‘business before pleasure’ are now too often the preserve of those higher up the socio-economic scale. But those kind of basic life-skills don’t cost anything. “A child doesn’t need expensive stuff, it needs a parent who will put in the time, be unpopular, take the longer view,” says Field. But nowhere in our culture do we tell parents this explicitly.
Field is right. We have all got selfish. It’s boring supervising homework or sitting patiently while a child struggles to read.  It is far easier to say – okay, shut up, eat Haribos and watch a video – and it is not just the poor who do that. But what children need most to thrive is concentrated parental attention and time. That is financially cheap, but spiritually hard. Parents need to be encouraged and congratulated for doing the right thing. If children are to grow up with character traits – self-control, discipline, being able to apply themselves – they need to succeed, we need to trumpet their importance and tell parents how to help their children achieve them.  Field has been asked by two governments to think the unthinkable on changing society – both times they have ignored his prescriptions. This time, he is going it alone (funded by the Grosvenor Trust with analysis by Cambridge University).  

The ability of a child to live up to its potential and not be limited by the circumstances of its birth is the mark of a civilised society. Sign up to Frank’s Social Highway Code – mobilise Britain.
 

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