David Cameron’s recent speech on Life Chances was a welcome departure. This government has not made many announcements on improving the prospects of the very poorest in our community so it was refreshing to hear the Prime Minister engage with the subject and acknowledge that state has a role in tackling poverty.
It was also good to hear a ‘life cycle approach’ to tackling poverty. Very often policies concerning young people are isolated and random. This was visible in just about all the political parties’ election manifestos; votes at 16, careers guidance, cheap bus passes, apprenticeships. There was no vision for young people. A cradle-to-grave approach at least provides a context for what policies are trying to achieve.
The announcements themselves were welcome although short on detail – NYA’s reaction to them is available here. Much will hang on the Life Chances Strategy which will be available in the spring, but mentors for young people and expanding social action are positive developments.
The speech revealed a lot about the government’s overarching approach to tackling poverty. The Prime Minister’s vision of social mobility is not based on creating a more level playing field but on emulating the methods of success of the more advantaged. So if buying a public school education provides access to the kind of social networks which create privilege, rather than question the fairness of this system, the government’s approach is to try and replicate it for state school pupils.
If having a ‘Tiger mother’ who pushes their child day and night to perform at the highest level and undertake a plethora of extra curricula activities, if this is the mark of the most academically successful young people, then disadvantaged young people should be pushed in the same way.
To me this sounds a little simplistic way of tackling intergenerational poverty. It is based on individual aspiration, precisely one of the factors that is depleted in disadvantaged families. For me, social mobility shouldn’t just be about rewarding the high achievers who live in poverty. It should be about elevating the opportunities for all young people of all levels of ability. Part of that is also recognising what achievement looks like – for some young people progress may be considerable but may not be measurable in grades at GCSE.
The Life Chances Strategy is going to have ambitious targets – improving the lot of 400,000 troubled families is a considerable challenge. It’s important then that these programmes are subject to rigorous evaluation so we can see the evidence of their impact. For many years the youth sector has been asked to demonstrate its impact. With considerable government funding channelled into them, these programmes must prove they pave the way out of poverty and are worthy of the investment.