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Ask more of under performing schools, not less of Oxbridge

The weekend papers saw a flurry of social mobility news with Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission publishing a new index of disadvantage and the Prime Minister challenging our leading universities to “go the extra mile” in recruiting students from a wider range of backgrounds.

In recent weeks the Government has taken a big step in refocusing the debate on poverty towards a life chance agenda, removing blunt monetary measures of poverty and looking at what drives poverty and reduces the life chances of our poorest children. The next giant leap will be for the Prime Minister’s Life Chances Agenda to be rooted in transparent, local metrics of poverty putting pressure on those areas who are holding back their poorest young people.

The “big question” the Prime Minister should ask is of those preparing our young people for life beyond the school gates. A 2014 study by the Sutton Trust found that more than four-in-10 teachers “rarely or never” advise academically-gifted children to apply to our best Universities.

Why doesn’t every school sixth form have a Teacher dedicated to the task of preparing students for Oxbridge entry, encouraging higher aspiration and providing a guiding hand through the application process. We should be asking more of our underperforming schools not lowering standards of entry to our best institutions, this is surely the right approach?

David Cameron has shone a Prime Ministerial spotlight on child poverty, disadvantage  and appalling social outcomes which truly do “shame our nation”.

It is now up policy makers charged with developing his Life Chances Agenda to develop localised metrics of disadvantage asking more of our education system to close the attainment gap between poorer and more affluent children long before their 18th birthday.

Less than 50 days to go – will the Chancellor use his Budget to put social justice at the heart of the Prime Minister’s plans to rebuild the 100 poorest "estates" in Britain?

Last week marked 50 days until the Chancellor’s annual Budget on March 16th. In the coming weeks Westminster commentators will turn their attention to its content.

Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor* talk passionately about Britain's "turnaround decade" . To achieve this bold vision the Chancellor should ensure that the turnaround decade extends to our poorest communities.

A good place to start would be to build on the Prime Minister’s recent announcement that he will “tear down” the 100 poorest “sink estates” in the UK and rebuild them.

The Chancellor should look seriously at using his Budget to ensure that social justice and the Government’s Life Chances Agenda is at the heart of these plans. On March 16th the Chancellor could take decisive action to ensure that stronger families and support to find work are included in the master planning for these new communities.

The CSJ will be producing a briefing paper on how the Chancellor can deliver this vision and a landmark social justice Budget in the coming weeks.

We shouldn’t just rebuild broken buildings but turn around lives to rebuild communities too.

*Picture courtesy of HM Treasury

Three cheers for Michael Gove the social reformer

Michael Gove was challenged in the Commons last week by Shipley MP Philip Davies, who accused him of having "gone native in record time as Secretary of State for Justice." Davies asked Gove when he would "put the victims of crime at the heart of what he is doing?"

Gove’s reply was indicative of his approach to his latest reforming mission when he said: "the purpose of our prison system and our criminal law is to keep people safe by making people better."

Britain has an appallingly high re-offending rate – 46 per cent of adults are reconvicted within one year of release from prison. This figure has remained largely unchanged for the past decade despite increases in the prison population. 

Far from being the ‘soft’ option, rehabilitating prisoners makes society safer because it reduces re-offending, thereby reducing the number of victims of crime. Gove is putting victims of crime at the heart of his reforms by focussing on long term rehabilitation and adopting a Life Chances approach. Only by looking at addiction, employment opportunities, education and family support can we truly begin to address our poor re-offending rates. 

In a House of Commons debate on criminal justice reform last week we saw an important change in the political narrative in this area. In this debate Michael Gove drove home his message that rehabilitation should be at the heart of prison reform. Responding to the debate he told the House, "we appreciate that really being tough on crime means being intellectually tough enough to wrestle with the problems of why crime occurs and how to stop criminals from offending again.”

With these words Michael Gove proves he has finally moved the debate on prison reform on from ever 'tougher' language. 

CSJ Thought Pieces

Alex Burghart: The Chancellor must tackle alcoholism in a social justice budget.

Alcoholism is England’s open secret. Around 1.6 million people are dependent on alcohol and more than one in five children live with an adult who drinks hazardously. These extreme problems – often sidelined by debates about whether a bottle of wine a night is safe for middle-class professionals – have an enormous social cost. 

Last week figures appeared showing that whilst harmful drinkers (those who consume double the recommended weekly allowance) make up five per cent of the population, they consume nearly a third of all alcohol sold. These are the people who really need help – without it they will struggle to hold down a job, keep their family together or stay out of debt.

The Government’s announcement earlier this month that they will leverage social investment to raise £120 million to combat addiction is extremely welcome – but the scale of the ambition needs to be extended. As a 12 week stay in residential rehabilitation costs about £7,200, this fund could support about 16,700 people – or around one per cent of today’s dependent drinkers. 

Going further would cost more but, as the CSJ has shown, a Treatment Tax of 1p on a unit on all alcohol sold 'off licence' could generate over half a billion pounds every year and start to make substantial inroads into this most stubborn of social problems.

CSJ Policy Recommendation: a Treatment Tax of 1p on every unit of alcohol sold, off licence, to pay for a major expansion of residential rehabilitation with a progression to 2p over a ten year period (p62, Ambitious for Recovery).

Saskia Greenhalgh: The quality of free childcare is as important as the quantity.

The Government's flagship Childcare Bill is now bouncing between the Commons and the Lords in a process known as 'Ping Pong' before being enacted into law. This Bill delivers a key Government manifesto pledge to give eligible families, where both parents are working, an entitlement to 30 hours a week of free childcare for 38 weeks of the year. It will also oblige local authorities to publish information about childcare and other services available for parents locally. These are all positive steps to be welcomed.

For children growing up in poorer households this is important. Research by the Sutton Trust has shown the cognitive development of three year old children from poorer backgrounds are on average nine months behind children from wealthier backgrounds. If we are to really tackle life chances, the Government needs to look at the earliest years of a child's life.

Having almost delivered the Childcare Bill into law, the Government should move its attention to the quality of provision in our poorest areas. Excellent early years education can be a strong driver of improved social outcomes. The Government should continue to push for improvement in this area and make this its next big education reform. 

A Government committed to 'an all out assault' on poverty should recognise that childcare quality is as important as availability if the life chances of the most disadvantaged children are to be improved. 

CSJ Policy Recommendation: All early years staff should hold at least a Level 3 Early Years Educator qualifications, funded by the Department for Education (p38, Closing the Divide).