The Government's consultation on ending child poverty and improving life chances has now closed, and publication of its child poverty strategy is expected later this month. Two of the main reports feeding into the strategy are by Labour MPs, both invited to conduct reviews by Prime Minister David Cameron and both giving high priority to the early years.
Frank Field's report on child poverty (The Foundation Years, published in December), and Graham Allen's report on early intervention (published in January), both call unequivocally for birth to five to be central to Government policy.
So why does such official recognition of the importance of the early years leave me feeling uneasy? Why do both reports set alarm bells ringing? Because on all counts - the analysis, the proposals, the timing - both seem symptomatic of a disturbing trend towards viewing the profound problems of an unequal society as individual failings - 'the wrong type of parenting' in Allen's words - and early years 'programmes' as technical fixes.
Both Field and Allen paint a sadly familiar scene: persistent poverty and persistent social problems related to low income. Some children from low-income families do well, says Field, but such examples are few. The persistence of these problems, both say, is accounted for by inter-generational cycles of deprivation, each generation passing down dysfunctional ways of living to the next.
Both see the answer in early intervention through evidence-based programmes, focused on the behaviour, relationships and development of individual children, parents and families, rather than or as well as further redistribution of resources to improve incomes.
A redistributive strategy, Field argues, is 'not sustainable in the longer run, particularly as we strive to reduce the budget deficit'. Both Allen and Field, therefore, see a stark either/or choice facing Government and society - between improving parenting by targeted behavioural interventions, or more income equality. Both go for the former.
Others, though, have taken issue. As Zoe Williams puts it, writing about the Allen report, 'There is no concept here of why people who are poor might be stressed: no acknowledgement of the fact it is inequality itself that spawns these problems, and not just a neat coincidence that people who are poor also have sub-optimal personalities.' (The Guardian, 20 January 2011). Nick Pearce, director of think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, commented in Nursery World (20 January 2011) that those who stress the role of parenting over income and deny that they are connected, forget that 'good parenting is easier if you have a decent income'. But there are stronger reasons for not ignoring income inequality.
Two years ago, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, professors of epidemiology, published a landmark book, The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better. Building on years of work and hundreds of studies, comparing many countries, they plot a clear relationship between levels of inequality and levels of many social and health problems. Their conclusion, too, is clear: 'Inequality seems to make countries socially dysfunctional across a wide range of outcomes.'
The Nordic countries and Japan, that have relatively low income inequality, consistently do well, with low levels of social and health problems. At the opposite end, 'suffering high rates of most of the health and social problems, are usually the US, Portugal and the UK', countries with high rates of income inequality (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, p174).
Wilkinson and Pickett's work provokes questions. Why is the UK so unequal? Might the high level of persistent problems be caused, in part at least, by our highly unequal society? If the persistent problems are simply due to failing families and cycles of deprivation, why are these problems more common in some societies than in others?
But Field and Allen are not provoked. Neither refers to Wilkinson and Pickett's book, not even to rebut them. Nor do they make any cross-national comparisons - strange omissions in reports that place so much emphasis on being 'evidence-based'.
But my unease, aroused by the way both reports treat poverty and other problems as rooted in individual failings, grows with the proposed solution: the systematic application in the early years to children and parents (in effect, mothers) of evidence-based 'programmes', linked to systems of payment by result.
Allen lists 72 'effective early intervention programmes' and 'presents the calculations which have been made of their cost-effectiveness'. This highly instrumental approach sets alarm bells really ringing.
There is the issue of whether it will work. Will these programmes, applied in sufficient number and with tight control to large numbers of people, 'cure' poverty and attendant social ills? What system of control will be needed to ensure the exact application of each programme, in every place and every time?
While Allen and Field talk much about the need for programmes that are evidence-based, and cite the success of many programmes, there is no evidence that more successful societies achieve their success this way. What these societies, such as the Nordic states, have in common is more equality, more democracy, more solidarity and more generous and universal welfare states - including universal provision of early childhood education and care.
But a bigger issue is the thinking behind the vision of Allen and Field, in particular their image or social construction of the child, the adult and the children's centre. Not that it occurs to either author that their reports are inscribed with such images. Here are failing, deficient or dysfunctional objects, 'poor' in all senses of the word, the passive recipients of programmes to ensure their conformity to norms.
Experts define the problem, devise the solution, monitor application and apply criteria of success, in a seamless exercise of technical practice. Parental participation is, of course, important, but what is demanded is the participation of compliance, the accepting patients taking the treatment prescribed for them.
Children's centres and other services become agencies for the application of human technologies, their workers acting as technicians assessed on their ability to deliver prescribed outcomes in a system of payment by results. Both the poor and those who work with them are to be subjected to a regime of normativity and performativity - which, in Allen's initial thinking, might be funded partly by 'new private sector financial instruments' purchased by private donors hoping for returns from the 'emerging cost-benefit and benefit realisation technology.'
The poor are no longer citizens with entitlement and agency, but objects of philanthropy and sources of new investment opportunities. Will the next step be early intervention derivatives and securitisation?
And this brings me to my last cause for unease: timing. Applying human technologies turns out to be cheaper than creating a more equal society, with all that redistribution of resources and power. We can slash the deficit and still cure all the problems - though Allen seems to be either over-optimistic or naive when he says he is encouraged to note 'the Government's recent statement that there is enough money in the Early Investment Grant to maintain the existing network of children's centres'.
But the timing seems to me to go beyond current deficit politics. Both reports craft a particular political narrative about society, leading us away from Wilkinson and Pickett's argument that more equal societies do better, and towards breaking the cycle of deprivation caused by dysfunctional individuals.
But why this narrative and now? Why is it we are hearing so much today about early intervention as the way to solve the social problems so widespread in our society? Why are we seeking individual solutions, turning our backs on the huge and highly visible structural problems? I'm thinking here of record levels of inequality, of privilege increasingly begetting privilege (60 per cent of Government ministers are privately educated), of the growing influence of corporate and other moneyed interests, of the destructive juggernaut of neo-liberal capitalism leaving wrecked industries, communities and individuals in its wake.
How convenient to distract attention from this dysfunctional system and turn it instead on to dysfunctional individuals. How convenient to air-brush the work of Wilkinson and Pickett, and spotlight that of Allen and Graham. It turns out, after all, that we don't need to change the system, just the people.
For decades I have advocated early years policies and services. In particular, I have advocated children's centres. Not as add-ons to a fragmented and marketised system of competing early childhood services, but as a truly universal service to which all children and parents are entitled. Not as enclosures for applying human technologies to produce predetermined standards and norms; but as places of encounter for citizens and collective workshops capable of many, many purposes and projects - which should be created, practised and evaluated through collective deliberation and decision-making by children and adults alike. Not as means to better govern 'poor' children and parents, but as resources to enable active citizens and communities to resist injustice and to develop projects that emerge, as one centre has described their role, 'from local demands struggling to change perceived conditions of exclusion and existing power relations'.
The causes of poverty, inequality and the other problems that blight the lives of so many children and parents are complex and structural. This is not to deny a role for providing support and help to individuals and families; that has its place. But it is not either/or. Support and help individuals and families, but also address the bigger picture - an unequal society, a dysfunctional economic system, an enfeebled democracy, and an obsession with governing children and adults. Children's centres and other services should be spaces for democratic practice and social transformation. Instead, these two reports reduce them to sites for technical practice and social control.
Peter Moss is Professor of Early Childhood Provision at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London (email@example.com)
- 'Why talk of empathy if you are going to cut the cuddles' by Zoe Williams, The Guardian, 20 January 2011
- 'Truths about poverty', To the Point, Nursery World, 20 January 2011
- The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2009).