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Invest in Early Years and Parenting Skills, urges Frank Field, not more benefits

Tim Montgomerie

Frank Field MP has this morning presented his report on fighting poverty. The report commissioned by David Cameron and Nick Clegg challenges the Labour Party's obsession with financial solutions to fighting poverty. Mr Field concludes that "a healthy pregnancy, positive but authoritative parenting, high quality childcare, a positive approach to learning at home and an improvement in parents' qualifications, can… trump class background and parental income."

FORFIELD He urges a freeze in benefit payments and the diversion of that money into what he regards as the crucial years of zero to five, what he calls "the foundation years":

"By the age of three, a baby's brain is 80% formed, and his or her experiences before then shape the way the brain has grown and developed. That is not to say, of course, it is all over by then, but ability profiles at that age are highly predictive of profiles at school entry."

Foundation Years, he writes, should become "a third part of our tripartite education system; the Foundation Years leading to school years leading to further, higher and continuing education."

This focus on early years is also the strong preference of Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice. Interestingly it is also favoured by The Guardian's Polly Toynbee, judging from her interview on this morning's Today programme. The whole Coalition has, in fact, prioritised investment in the early years over, for example, university education. This is the important context for the tuition fees debate with most government ministers - David Willetts being a prominent exception - believing that a person's life chances are determined before they are five. The policy inference has been that all spare resources should be targeted on the first few years of a child's life.

Mr Field goes further and recommends that a Cabinet minister be appointed with responsibility for overseeing Early Years Interventions.

Parenting One of the recommendations widely trailed was the suggestion that all new parents attend classes to improve their skills. "Parents," writes Field, "are the key drivers in determining their children's life chances." The report also recommends a GCSE on parenting so that the next generation do not become new parents as under-prepared as this generation.

Those who oppose these ideas need to answer the question: 'Where do new mums and dads from dysfunctional backgrounds learn to be good parents if these classes aren't provided?'

These new programmes would be financed by freezing child benefit and child tax credits.

Refocus Mr Field also wants to see Sure Start centres taken over by voluntary organisations such as Barnardos, local GPs, schools and housing associations. He says he wants Sure Start to return to David Blunkett's original vision and to be focused on the most vulnerable and the "hardest to reach" families. The new Sure Start contracts he proposes would incentivise this.

Monitor The final theme of Mr Field's report is the introduction of new measures of poverty and life chances. He wants children monitored intensively during their Foundation Years to ensure they are progressing according to "a range of factors in young children which we know to be predictive of children’s future outcomes."

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