The coalition’s poverty adviser, Frank Field, will call for all children to be given parenting classes at school when he presents a government-commissioned review into poverty to the prime minister later this year.
The theme of Field’s review is “how to prevent poor children becoming poor adults”. He recommends a move away from a mainly financial approach to tackling child poverty, favoured by the last government, to a strategy that focuses on parenting, and on the early childhood years, up to the age of five.
“Being a parent, apart from running the army in Afghanistan, is the most important thing we will ask anyone to do and we assume people get the knowledge by osmosis – and they don’t,” the former Labour minister said.
He said he was disturbed by research showing how accurate a prediction can be made as to where a child will be in their 20s, by looking at their ability at 22 months and just before five years.
Narrowing divisions in children’s readiness for school at five was central to tackling divisions in later life, he said.
A report by the Sutton Trust charity, published last week, showed that poorer children are twice as likely to start school with behavioural problems, and warned that the gap had widened over the past 10 years. Field interprets those findings as evidence that although the Labour government was successful in reducing the overall number of children living in poverty, parallel work needs to be done on reducing non-financial inequalities.
He argued that with generous investment, the foundation years – the first five years of a child’s life – could “become more powerful than class in determining where children will be at five, 10, 16 and where they will be at 20”.
Part of the problem was a decline in people’s understanding of good parenting, he said.
“There has been a rupturing of the level of parenting skills in my lifetime. There was a collective wisdom about the beneficial effects of tough love – you set boundaries for your children, but you loved them within those boundaries.”
During his research for the review, he met numerous teachers who said those boundaries were no longer being set.
“I think it is more difficult to parent now than it was. The pressures on you are greater. It is expected that people, mothers, should work, and rather quickly after birth, even if they are on their own. Postwar housing developments have split up communities. You are bombarded with demands from television about the things that children should have. It puts a much greater pressure on parents. To add to that you may not have had a good role model yourself,” he said.
“I’ve met lots of heads who say children are worse prepared for school now than they were 30 years ago. Children should be able to sit still, they should know their own name, they should be able to take their coat off, they should understand the word ‘stop’, they have to be able to hold a crayon.” Teachers had told him they were increasingly obliged to teach children these skills, he said.
In recommendations that he will present to the education secretary, Michael Gove, this week, Field will suggest that parenting should be taught as a theme within other subjects – “not as a separate ghetto subject”, so students would look, for example, at the development of a child’s brain within their science GCSEs. The teaching would help children understand what would equip them to be a “five-star parent”.
“While money is important,” he said, “I will be arguing in the report that there are other circumstances which, the research shows, are as important as money in determining outcomes: the interest you take in your children, how you bond with them, whether you read to them, the interest you show in what they are doing at school.”
The government is committed to the same goal of eradicating child poverty in the UK by 2020 as set out by Labour, and has increased child tax credits paid to families falling below the poverty line.
Field, who was a director of the Child Poverty Action Group charity before he went into politics, said he thought the extra money should have been spent on Sure Start projects, aimed at helping children in their early life.
“I would have argued, though I wasn’t in the game to argue, a different split of that money, between tax credits and the foundation years, because if we are serious about transforming the lives of poorer children, it won’t simply come by increasing tax credits, however generous they are.”
Do you think it is essential to teach children the values of adulthood from such an early age? What practices do you implement in your setting to help prepare children for primary school or even adulthood? Join the discussion by dropping your comments below.