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How serious is the new Prime Minister and her government about making the country work for everyone

How serious is the new Prime Minister and her government about making the country work for everyone

A new book published today by Child Poverty Action Group, ‘Improving Children’s Life Chances’, which draws on the work of a wide range of experts in the early years, education, health and social mobility, suggests the key test will be whether the PM faces or turns her back on the UK’s looming child poverty crisis.

David Cameron had planned the launch of his life chances strategy for the days following the EU referendum. Since the launch was cancelled, however, our knowledge of its contents is limited to a speech made in January which suggested the ‘strategy’ would be little more than a slogan covering a whole slew of existing policies.

That’s why we asked 15 experts, including Ruth Lister, Michael Marmot and Alan Milburn, to put some flesh on this skeletal strategy by identifying policy interventions that could improve the life chances of children.

Octavia Holland calls for greater support for separating and separated families, rather than an approach demonising the three million children in single parent families.

Eva Lloyd is clear that the current childcare market is failing. It’s failing on quality. It’s failing on access. It’s failing on affordability. She calls for the gradual extension of the 30 hours’ free childcare offer for three- and four-year-olds, and the part-time offer for two-year-olds, to all children regardless of parents’ circumstances. This would require an expansion of maintained sector capacity in nursery schools and classes, as well as in the private, voluntary and independent sector.

Education expert Sonia Exley points to the body of evidence which suggests grammar schools are a bad idea for children from low income families, and calls for greater funding for schools and recognition from the government that it needs to do more to support the home learning environment.

These are just some of the recommendations in the book, which also contains a whole range of suggested indicators to track progress. An effective life chances strategy therefore must be broad in nature. But each of the experts also illustrates the importance of low income – poverty – to life chances.

Kitty Stewart’s chapter makes it clear that money matters. Children pick up on the increased parental stress and anxiety caused by living on a low income, and when income is increased it helps to secure improvements in the emotional home environment, including parental warmth, encouragement and supervision. There is also clear evidence of improvements in cognitive development and school achievement as well as social, emotional and behavioural outcomes. A life chances strategy that does not consider the role of household income, and particularly of income poverty, is a strategy with a hole at its centre.

But will the government act to tackle child poverty? The inevitable consequence of austerity delivered by cuts to working age social security is rising child poverty. The 1997-2010 governments lifted 1.1m children out of poverty. The IFS projects that George Osborne’s tax and benefit policies will force 1.3m children into poverty – a 50 per cent rise.

Under David Cameron, the government expended considerable time and effort trying to argue the real problem is the way we (and everyone else) measure poverty, and attempted to conjure up a poverty measure that could be both credible and insensitive to its austerity decisions (it couldn’t).

The evidence has long been overwhelming that poverty affects life chances. Our new book brings additional insights from some of the country’s most respected experts. The question that needs answering isn’t whether poverty matters, but whether the new Prime Minister will act.

If Theresa May is serious about improving life chances, then she must use the Autumn Statement to start the fightback against poverty. Undoing George Osborne’s cuts to Universal Credit, which hammered low paid workers, especially single parents, would be a good start.

To purchase the book click here.