Cameron Watt is Deputy Director of the Centre for Social Justice, he writes here in a personal capacity.
Earlier this week I accompanied IDS to NAVCA’s annual conference at Keele University. (NAVCA is the national umbrella body for community groups and the councils for voluntary service that support grassroots projects around the country.) The conference was entitled Breaking the exclusion cycle - can the voluntary and community sector help build a more equal society? and our old friend Polly Toynbee was chairing.
Unsurprisingly, the agendas Iain and Polly presented for tackling poverty were rather different. However there was one principle that both were agreed on: the need for effective early intervention in the lives of our most vulnerable infants to arrest and reverse intergenerational poverty. Iain stated that a full appreciation of the urgency of ensuring the most vulnerable under-threes are given every opportunity to thrive was been the most significant development in his thinking during his chairmanship of the Social Justice Policy Group (SJPG). A lack of proper nurture in a child’s first three years can do irrevocable damage to a child’s mental health and cognitive development. Clearly, parents from dysfunctional families often struggle to provide this, perpetuating disadvantage and the associated crime and disorder.
Polly Toynbee is probably the most committed evangelist for New Labour’s early years programmes. Trouble is, increasing evidence suggests her devotion may be little more than blind faith. Take SureStart. If there’s one signature initiative that ministers extol as the acme of New Labour’s fight against poverty, it’s SureStart. Conceived by Brown’s Treasury, SureStart was an area-based scheme intended to ‘deliver the best start in life for every child’ by bringing together early education, childcare, health and family support to help families from pregnancy until children were four years old.
In 2005, a £16m government-funded evaluation of SureStart found that three-year-olds born to teenage mothers in SureStart areas scored lower in verbal ability and social competence and higher on behaviour problems than their counterparts in non-Sure Start areas. Furthermore, Durham University research published last month shows that Government's early years education overhaul, which has cost taxpayers more than £21 billion since 1997, has failed to improve development levels of children entering primary school. A six-year study of 35,000 children found that children's development and skills as they enter primary school are no different than they were in 2000. Since then Labour has introduced the early childhood curriculum, expanded the Sure Start programme and introduced free nursery education for all three-year-olds.
With such a record of expensive failure, efforts to alleviate disadvantage in the early years could be considered futile. Would the money not be better spent elsewhere? In a word – no. The Government’s early years programme needs a major overhaul to ensure taxpayers receive value for money, but the right kinds of investment could reap huge dividends for society.
A key principle for reform must be ensuring that resources are invested in the most needy families. On a visit to my church’s curate and his lawyer wife here in Kennington, I noticed a SureStart branded storybook on their kitchen table. Yet this is just one example of a national trend whereby middle-class parents in mixed, urban SureStart areas have spotted the shiny new centres and moved in en masse to take advantage of free childcare and other facilities. Of course there’s nothing at all wrong with middle-class families receiving high-quality public services, but they shouldn’t be resourced from programmes to address poverty among the most disadvantaged.
To increase the effectiveness of early interventions, more intensive and flexible one-to-one help should be made available for the most vulnerable mothers and babies from pregnancy onwards. As the mothers needing most help are currently unlikely to venture into Sure Start centres, mentoring should be provided in their homes.
Programmes such as Nurse Family Partnership show what can be achieved. Pioneered in Baltimore 30 years ago, it greatly improves life outcomes for vulnerable children and their parents. Mothers-to-be are offered intensive one-to-one help from health visitors starting during their pregnancy, right through the first three years of their baby’s life. A follow-up study of 15-year-olds who had benefited from the programme as infants showed that compared to their peers, they had 56% fewer days of alcohol consumption, 56% fewer arrests and 81% fewer convictions. Although initially expensive, in the US the cost of the program was recovered by the first child’s fourth birthday, with further substantial savings over the participant children’s lifetimes - $5 for every $1 spent.
With such a long-established evidence base, it’s appalling that this programme is only now being piloted by the Government in a handful of areas. British voluntary organisations such as OXPIP (chaired by Conservative PPC for South Northamptonshire, Andrea Leadsom) and PIPPIN have a track-record of providing similar high-quality support. The SJPGroup advocates a major expansion of Nurse Family-type programmes for the most vulnerable as a matter of absolute priority. Hopefully the majority would be delivered by voluntary sector groups.
To help ensure that the neediest infants benefit from these programmes, the SJPG proposes a new incentive. Receipt of the front-loaded child benefit proposed would, for the most vulnerable, be dependent on mothers’ participation in the scheme and progress in partnership with health visitors. Along with the privacy of assistance in their own homes, the significant potential increase in their incomes is likely to motivate most of the mothers targeted to participate.
Health visitors running these schemes would operate out the family services hubs the Group envisages. These would be created to enhance current, community-based service provision, improving the efficiency and co-ordination of professionals and voluntary sector providers. The hubs’ overwhelming focus would be greater support for parents in their children’s crucial first three years.
Although its desire for effective early intervention is laudable, New Labour should not be praised for ploughing on with early years programmes that are failing to make sufficient impact. Conservatives can learn from their mistakes now and in government re-direct resources to proven interventions for the most vulnerable mothers and babies. Combined with a raft of proposals to reverse family breakdown, major progress could be made to reverse the intergenerational poverty that still blights our country.