The Field Review

The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults, the final report of the UK Government Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances headed by Labour MP Frank Field, argues for an expansion of provision for children in their early years and a downgrading of efforts to reduce income poverty.

Background

In June 2010, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, commissioned Frank Field MP to conduct an Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances.

The aim of the Review was to:

  • generate a broader debate about the nature and extent of poverty in the UK
  • examine the case for reforms to poverty measures, in particular for the inclusion of non-financial elements
  • explore how children’s home environment affects their chances of being ready to take full advantage of their schooling
  • recommend potential action by government and other institutions to reduce poverty and enhance life chances for the least advantaged, consistent with the government’s fiscal strategy.

The PSE: UK team’s response to the Field Review consultation on poverty and life chances was published in Tackling Child Poverty and Improving Life Chances: Consulting on a New Approach, Working Paper, policy series no. 1.

The final report

The final report, The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults, was published on 3 December 2010. It argues that:

A major limitation of the existing child poverty measures is that they have incentivised a policy response focused largely on income transfers. This approach has stalled in recent years and is financially unsustainable. A more effective approach is to use a set of measures that will incentivise a focus on improving children’s life chances, and ultimately break the transmission of intergenerational disadvantage.

It makes two main recommendations:

  • ‘To prevent poor children from becoming poor adults the Review proposes establishing a set of Life Chances Indicators that will measure how successful we are as a country in making life’s outcomes more equal for all children.’
  • ‘To drive this policy of raising life chances the Review proposes establishing the first pillar of a new tripartite education system: the Foundation Years, covering the period conception to five. The Foundation Years will then lead into the school years, leading to further, higher and continuing education.

In establishing a set of ‘Life Chances indicators’, nine indicators are proposed covering:

  • Cognitive development at age three (British Ability Scales and/or Bracken School Readiness Assessment)
  • Behavioural, social and emotional development at age three (Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire)
  • Physical development at age three (BMI and parental rating of child’s general health)
  • Home learning environment (Home Learning Index from the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education study)
  • Maternal mental health (Short Form 12 or Kessler 6)
  • Positive parenting (Pianta child-parent relationship scale and/or Millennium Cohort Study authoritative parenting measures)
  • Mother’s educational qualifications (Standard UK educational qualification measure)
  • Mother’s age at birth of first child (Age in years and months)
  • Quality of nursery care (Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale)

The emphasis of these indicators is on personal and individual characteristics rather than wider social and environmental factors. Many studies over the last fifty years and across many countries have shown the importance of wider social and environmental factors on life chances.

The recommendations concentrate on young children, arguing that the early years are ‘crucial’. However, while the early years are indeed crucial, intervention at this age alone is insufficient. All of childhood is important and some children (often poorer children) who do well in primary school fall back in secondary school. 

Comments on the report

The emphasis in the Report on early years education and family support has been welcomed by many. However, the Report has been widely seen to underestimate the importance of poverty on life chances. While improved provision in early years can mitigate some of the impact of poverty it is in itself insufficient. Kathleen Kiernan, Professor of Social Policy and Demography at the University of York, and colleagues have examined data from the UK Millennium Cohort study to assess the extent to which positive parenting mediated the effects of poverty and disadvantage. Kiernan concludes:

despite the best efforts of their parents, children living in poverty and relatively disadvantaged circumstances still remain behind their wealthier, well-parented peers. …

Children’s achievement can be adversely affected by poor parenting; it can also be adversely affected by poverty. Directing efforts at only poverty or parenting, to the exclusion of the other, is unlikely to result in equitable outcomes.

The Report's authors (see Kiernan, K.E. and Mensah, F.K. (2010) ‘Poverty, family resources and children’s early educational attainment: the mediating role of parenting’, British Educational Research Journal; subscription only) conclude:

It was clear from our analyses that poverty mattered, but persistent poverty was even more detrimental for children’s attainment.

Others argue that the government cuts put at risk existing investment in early years education established under the Labour government (see ‘Frank Field must not let the unthinkable happen to Sure Start’ by Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, 3 December 2010).

The Report not only downgrades the importance of poverty as a determinant of life chances but also downgrades the importance of poverty in itself. Poverty is a problem here and now for those children living in families with insufficient resources quite apart from its effect on their future life chances, significant as that is. Life chances is a quite different concept and any particular child’s life chances will depend not just on their own situation – both financial and non-financial – but on their relative chances in relation to others right up the income range. Field takes a narrow view of these questions, seeing an expansion of provision for support for parenting as at the expense of income support for poor families, a prescription that The Guardian editorial argues could prove ‘poisonous’ (‘Frank Field’s poverty study’, The Guardian, 6 December 2010).

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