On 8th January 2015 Peers debated a motion in the name of Baroness Massey of Darwen, ‘that this House takes note of the case for early years intervention in breaking the cycle of deprivation and promoting social mobility’. The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Rev Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans:
I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for pressing this very important issue. It is, as has already been noted, an extremely complex one. We are talking about nothing less than a profound culture change in many local communities if we are to break the cycle of deprivation and increase social mobility.
For some years I worked in two parts of the West Midlands—wonderful places to live and work; I have many friends there still—but they were both characterised as areas that had extremely low aspirations. It was one thing to change the school but if the child went home and was told repeatedly, “Actually, that sort of thing does not make any difference to us. You are wasting your time”, all the work was undone. There needs to be a profound social and cultural change in the family as well.
That was one of the things that struck me when I was reading the comments in the interim report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, which reported back in 2012. It summarised its conclusions into seven “key truths”. I will pick out just the first four, which show precisely this connection. The first key truth was:
“The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between ages 0 and 3, primarily in the home”.
The second and third were:
“You can also break the cycle through education … the most important controllable factor being the quality of your teaching”.
Then it flips back to the family in the fourth one:
“But it’s also about what happens after the school bell rings”,
and the child goes home.
That same point was made very eloquently in the excellent cross-party report The 1001 Critical Days: The Importance of the Conception to Age Two Period, which was published last June. In other words, any approach needs to work not only with our schools but with everybody in the home—a parent or parents, and siblings—and every place in which the child and their family will find themselves in seeking to change that culture and that level of aspiration.
We have some collaborative holistic models; for example, the outstanding work done in the Troubled Families programme. Louise Casey, who heads up the programme, was quoted in a report published last October. She said:
“This programme is working so effectively because it deals with the whole family and all of their problems, with 1 key worker going in through the front door and getting to grips with an average of 9 different problems, rather than a series of services failing to engage or get the family to change”.
We need some imagination about the practical ways that we can get holistic approaches working at every level of the family and the child’s life if we are going to break these cycles of deprivation and increase social mobility. It will need significant resources and people with first-class skills focused over the long term. I hope that, with a general election coming up, we will steady ourselves with some of the programmes that are now beginning to bear fruit and not simply ditch them and reinvent new ones all the time.
I also plead that we work hard on establishing partnerships and close working relationships with the statutory and, more importantly, the voluntary and charitable sectors. I shall pick up on a couple of them. I have recently been in touch with the Stefanou Foundation, which is based in Welwyn Garden City, in my diocese. A major part of its work is entitled “Healthy Relationships: Healthy Baby”. It includes training in parenting. It has taken the lead in working with the police, local government, and health and probation services. It is about to launch a programme this April in Stevenage and in Westminster. It is a fascinating example of a group taking a lead on this and building on these connections, drawing in everybody to try to get this holistic approach so that we are getting some synergy, which seems fundamental.
However, we should not forget the quiet, unsung work that is going on that probably never gets on anybody’s radar. I shall give an example. I was recently in one of my churches, Christ Church in Bedford. That parish church employs a full-time families worker called Monica Cooper. It has raised the money to do this. Most people in the area probably do not know what is going on. It is long-term work. Much of it is about teaching parenting skills. The result is that Monica has been able to support a number of families. The results have been quite notable for a small number of families. It is very intensive work. It means that some children who had more or less dropped out of school are now regularly attending school. The work has been commended by a local head teacher. It is long-term and costly. If we are to find a way forward, we need local authorities to deliver clearly focused work and to act as co-ordinating bodies, engaging with national and local charities, all pulling together in the same direction.