A plan to improve children’s lives could become an effective tool in tackling child poverty and ill-health, but the Government must get the public on board to give the issue political clout, says Herpreet Kaur Grewal.


Educational reforms announced by the Government last month promise a wide set of measures to improve the lives of children and young people and fundamentally tackle child poverty.

Children’s secretary Ed Balls said the reforms in the ten-year Children’s Plan would aim to make the country “the best place in the world for our children and young people to grow up”. The plan follows a number of critical reports released in 2007, such as a study by UN children’s agency Unicef that put the UK bottom for child wellbeing among 21 developed nations (R&R, 16 February 2007, p2).

The proposals include free childcare for 20,000 two-year-olds in the most disadvantaged families. It also extends the Government’s current offer of up to 15 hours a week of free childcare for young children from the most disadvantaged families to all three and four-year-olds.

The plan also includes better outreach services from local Sure Start children’s centres, aimed at attracting the most deprived families in England, more play spaces in deprived areas, and a “root and branch” review of the primary curriculum and testing for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds.

Balls’ announcement has been welcomed by many campaigners. Kate Green, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, says the proposals recognise “many of the unmet needs of children in poverty”.

Alison Garnham, joint chief executive of charity the Daycare Trust, says providing free childcare places is a “simple, transparent way of supporting early-years education and care” and would target “the most disadvantaged first and help close the gap in educational outcomes between the poorest children and the rest”.

But there are also sceptics. Julia Margo, associate director at centre-left think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, describes the £100 million promised investment over three years in childcare for two-year-olds as “not very much”.

The Children’s Plan pledges funding for councils to hire two extra outreach workers in each Sure Start centre serving the most disadvantaged communities. This could lead to the recruitment of up to 5,000 additional Sure Start workers by 2010.

The move to bolster Sure Start staffing in the toughest areas is a bid to ensure that one of the flagship welfare programmes from the Blair years reaches more deprived families, as originally intended. It comes amid criticism from public spending watchdog the National Audit Office, which last year reported that less than a third of Sure Start centres were identifying and delivering services to the poorest families.

A sum of £225 million has also been pledged in the plan between 2008 and 2011 to build or upgrade more than 3,500 playgrounds and set up 30 supervised adventure playgrounds. The Government says these “are important for children’s development and to reduce obesity, build social and emotional resilience, develop social skills, strengthen friendships and help children learn how to deal with risks”.

Margo says that, while the reforms are “really positive”, ways to tackle all the problems children face have not yet been “cracked”. She adds: “This plan has been put out to review groups. We have to make sure that it culminates in action.” She also warns that it is important to consider why projects such as Sure Start had failed to reach all the poorest families before taking the reforms forward.

Margo argues that in-work poverty must also be dealt with to tackle child poverty. “Reforms to the minimum wage, more support for low-income families and changes to the tax credit system are not mentioned in the plan,” she says.

Kate Green agrees, saying: “The common thread that will transform the plan’s patchwork of measures into a successful whole is an end to child poverty. It is now up to the Treasury to make sure that the 2010 target for halving child poverty is met so that the plan is not undermined.”

Last month, Balls reiterated the Government’s commitment to eradicating child poverty by 2020, describing it as an issue “I care passionately about”. He added: “I want to be clear that we are not going to abandon these goals just because the going has got tough. This is when we need to redouble our efforts.”

The new Child Poverty Unit, responsibility for which is split between the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Work and Pensions, will help to coordinate this work, he said.

But Sunder Katwala, general secretary of think-tank the Fabian Society, raises a key point when he says more needs to be done to win over the public when it comes to tackling child poverty in order to give the issue political impetus: “People know very little about their society and think poverty only exists in Africa. The Government should address such stereotypes.”

– The Children’s Plan is available via www.regen.net/doc.

CHILDREN’S PLAN PLEDGES

– To provide £34 million over the next three years to pay for two expert parenting advisers in every local authority.

– An official book to enable parents to monitor the progress of their child’s development from early years to primary school.

– A Parents’ Panel to advise on policies affecting parents.

– Tackle housing overcrowding and prioritise children’s needs in housing decisions.

– Close the gap in educational disadvantage by tailoring teaching and testing according to need and based on “stage, not age”.

– Spend £26.5 million over the next three years to pilot “studio schools” with close links to business for those children at high risk of exclusion because of poor behaviour.