In 1969, we started a ground-breaking study looking at the experiences of children from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds. Born to Fail? revealed how growing up in these circumstances damaged children’s lives, resulting in poor health, underachievement at school and lack of opportunities to fulfil their potential.
Fast forward to 2008 and the words of David Cameron, who as the leader of the opposition said: “We all know in our hearts that creating a good society for children to grow up in is one of the greatest tests of any nation’s character ... we really can make this country the best place in the world for children to grow up.”
Today, the stark reality is that the UK is far from being the best place in the in the world for children to grow up. What does this say about our “nation’s character” and our aspirations for our children?
Last month, we launched a new report, Greater Expectations, which looks at 12 key indicators of children’s lives today compared to nearly 50 years ago. The findings reveal a worrying picture: rather than improving across the last five decades, poverty and disadvantage still wreak havoc on 3.5 million underprivileged children, causing them to lag far behind their more affluent peers, from health to education, early development to housing.
In education, we see that a child from a disadvantaged background is still far less likely to achieve well at school age 11 and do well in their GCSEs at 16 compared to a child from the most well-off backgrounds. Children in care have particularly poor educational outcomes and too many children with SEN are not doing as well as they could. Only one in five children from the poorest backgrounds get five or more A* to C GCSEs, including English and maths, compared to three out of four of those from the most affluent families.
A move away from using a range of assessment methods to demonstrate what children know and understand, to a focus on examinations, is likely to affect these children disproportionately. As a result they will not achieve the necessary grades, despite showing the required standard in their work. This experience of failure will have an impact on their progress in future education and training.
Greater Expectations also asked whether we are doing as well as other industrialised nations. The simple answer is no, we trail dismally behind. Other countries in Europe (who are similarly affluent) are performing much better. In Denmark, a staggering million fewer children grow up in poverty than the UK. That so little has changed in 50 years suggests an underlying apathy and “desensitised” atmosphere.
Nobody denies the fact that in an age of austerity the government needs to be prudent. But with more children slipping into poverty, lives and talents are being wasted, which in turn leads to a severe economic cost.
In the run up to the next election, all parties need to put tackling child poverty and reducing inequality at the heart of their agenda, by making a political commitment to not simply improve social mobility (which the government says is the principal goal of its current social policy), but to address the inequality gap between rich and poor.
We want to work with other organisations to establish a common set of indicators that are used as both a matrix to hold government to account and to provide the basis for a shared vision of what we want to achieve for all our children. To further ignore the problem runs a real risk of walking into a world in which children’s lives are so polarised that rich and poor live in separate, parallel worlds, and we tacitly accept that some children are simply destined to experience hardship and disadvantage by accident of birth.