A few weeks ago, I read an article which discussed a scheme to be trialled in Middlesbrough and Camden, North London in which parents will be paid up to £600 to attend ‘parenting academies‘ where they will learn to help their children with English, Maths, Science and Reading.
The move is thought to be intended to help poorly educated parents develop their own skills which will in turn enable them to help their children. The Child Poverty Action Group has found that 3.7 million children in the UK are living in poverty. Those in receipt of free school meals gain on average 1.7 grades lower at GCSE than their more affluent peers and this translates to lower earnings over a lifetime. It is clear that we need to do something to break the cycle of poverty in the United Kingdom, particularly as current projections expect child poverty to rise to 4.7 million by the year 2020.
The complicated nature of poverty and its cyclical nature make it extremely difficult for politicians to agree on the best way to tackle the issue and I don’t profess to offer any solutions.
But there is one thing of which I am certain: Paying parents to help their children is not the answer.
Poverty destroys lives. Let us be clear that there are far too many people in Britain who cannot afford food, heat and other basic necessities nevermind luxurious items that many of us take for granted such as designer shoes, magazines and trips to coffee shops.
The problem with this new scheme is that it is not targeting the right people, at the right time and in the right way. Recent studies have shown that children raised by disadvantaged parents in areas of poverty are already 19 months behind at the age of 5 when they enter school and that this disparity usually continues until GCSE level. Surely then the solution is to help new parents or even pregnant mothers and equip them with skills to help them give their children the best start in life. How to read with their children; how to talk to their children in ways that will help their language to develop; how to help them to learn their numbers. If these are the areas that are shown to make the most difference when a child attends school, then this is where we need to focus our attention. Not waiting until the gap has already begun to widen.
OFSTED inspector, Baroness Sally Morgan, has made the ludicrous suggestion that the answer to this problem is to take those children and throw them into school at the age of 2. This would apparently give them a better chance to catch up the gap and be more in line academically with their peers by the time they reach compulsory school age. Perhaps. Or, more likely, this would simply cause to weaken the bond between parent and child, make parents feel less involved in the education and indeed life of their children, leading them to offer less support as they progress through the school system. Children in parts of Europe who do not start school until 7 consistently outperform British children academically. One of the reasons for this is that the children are happier because they have been given more quality learning experiences and love at home. They start school feeling secure in themselves because they have been enveloped in a loving environment which develops their confidence and immerses them in learning in a way which helps them to become self-motivated individuals with minds like sponges.
This brings us back again to when we help parents. The Surestart initiative was devised in order to provide and help parents to provide quality experiences for young children. Staff were intended to be on hand to help with day-to-day matters of childcare to ensure that our most disadvantaged families were given at least some of the support they needed. The scheme is now being phased out; indeed it has already been phased out in a lot of areas. The few times I attended the centres, they were filled with competitive, cliquey, yummy-mummies who sought only to prove that their child could sit, walk and talk faster and more proficiently than their peers. Activities were charged for and so the families who actually needed the centres found them largely inaccessible.
In addition to the fact that this new initiative seems to be introduced too late for the children it is designed to be helping, it is simply wrong to pay parents to do the right thing. This will only serve to further embed the culture of worklessness which is a huge problem in Britain. I am not for a second suggesting that all, or even most poverty, is caused by this. Wages are too low, childcare is too expensive, families in Britain are not supported at all by the government. If Mothers work, they are criticised for leaving their children; if they don’t, they are called workshy. Families cannot win. Notwithstanding this, it is a fact that there are many thousands of people who believe that it is their right to sit and do nothing and to be funded by the benefit system and it is imperative that we break this cycle.
If we pay parents to attend these academies, we are advocating the view that there should be an incentive for them to want to help their children. I’m talking an incentive beyond wanting their children to be happy, successful individuals. We should want to help our children because we love them and we want to enable them to escape the bonds of poverty. Not because someone has paid us to do it.
What happens when the funding runs out? Will these parents continue to help their children and apply the skills they’ve gained? No. Because the financial incentive is removed. And what about those who miss out on the scheme? Well, why should they help little Janey for free when Sharon down the road was paid £600 to help her John?
Providing a way for people to improve their skills can never be a bad thing; the academies will offer free childcare which will remove barriers to access but I cannot accept that the scheme will do anything to help children currently in poverty because the assistance is offered too late. Intervention needs to be earlier. This is just another example of our government completely missing the point.