Children, Life chances and a fluid political agenda

James Law (Newcastle University)

It was not so very long ago that Prime Minister David Cameron was extolling the need to think about a person’s Life Chances. The idea as indicated above was originally attributed to the work of German sociologist Max Weber but was really given focus in Johnson and Kossykh 2008 review Early years, life chances and equality and Frank Field’s report The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults.

The story was that poverty was no longer the principal driver of social inequalities but that the opportunities an individual had and then took were key to improving the lot of more disadvantaged people in society. This seemed to be especially relevant for children whose life chances had been curtailed by virtue of circumstances completely outside their control. A Life Chances strategy was promised and due to be released at the time of the Brexit vote. It was postponed, Prime Minister Cameron resigned and, life chances, along with much of the Conservative party manifesto, appeared to be kicked into the proverbial long grass. The issues remained the same, of course, but the politics had changed. Continue reading

Wellbeing and families in fuel poverty

Sara Walker (Newcastle University)

Living in cold homes creates health risks for people of all ages and affects their quality of life. Elderly people, children, and those with a disability or long-term illness are especially vulnerable[1]. For these groups, being able to heat their homes to a minimum accepted standard is essential to reduce the risk of morbidity and mortality, and maximise wellbeing[2]. Research into the dynamics of, consequences of, and resilience and responses to fuel poverty has primarily focused on the general population or the older demographic. Younger households are by comparison under-represented: relatively little research has been conducted into the considerable long-term health and social impacts fuel poverty may have on the health and wellbeing of young families and children, and little attention has been paid to the coping strategies such families employ or how they can be supported by targeted policy or practical interventions to alleviate fuel poverty[3]. Continue reading

Three ghosts haunting the life chances discussion

John Veit-Wilson (Newcastle University)

Talking about life chances in the UK at present inevitably also means talking about the consequences of inequality and poverty and the possibilities of social mobility. There’s a lot to be said, and naturally scholars want to say it all, or as much of it as they’ve themselves grasped. Whether or not that makes for lively academic and professional conferences, it’s no use when snappy concision is what’s needed for public and media impact. When I was asked to comment at the end of the recent event Setting a course for life chances: a new direction, it seemed to me that  instead of summaries or key points something which did have to be said was what had not been mentioned by other speakers. This isn’t a matter of proverbial unmentionable elephants but of ghost subjects which haunt all these discussions and which everyone’s a bit frightened of. Three of them floated around and need confrontation.

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Setting a course for life chances: a new direction

On 12th September our first event about life chances took place on the university campus, to discuss the potential opportunity from the life chances agenda. The participants included nearly 50 people from universities, local government and other organisations in the region, as well as colleagues already part of the project. The aim was to identify where we thought there was opportunity to do something new with the agenda and how best to proceed by engaging with other interested groups.

We were pleased to have an introduction from Mark Shucksmith, the Director of Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Renewal (NISR) which has sponsored the project and the cost of the event itself. Mark identified that he had used Max Weber’s original theory about life chances in his thesis several decades earlier, and that this had been contesting Marx’s solely structural interpretation of society. While the term has been appropriated by others now, the original theoretical development has something to offer still, and there is a geographical aspect to structural factors for life chances in rural populations.

The principal feature of the afternoon was a presentation from Moussa Haddad, one of the policy officers of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). Moussa outlined how the life chances agenda related to the work on poverty CPAG is renowned for, and how this affected many different areas of children’s lives. A fuller description of Moussa’s talk, and the slides from his presentation, will feature as a future blog, but the political story is still evolving. And CPAG will be launching a book in October which includes chapters on each of the different themes, from such luminaries as Michael Marmot who wrote the health chapter, and Alan Milburn who writes about social mobility.

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Secondary modern schools and social mobility

Social mobility is a peculiarly British preoccupation, while in the US aspiration is associated with economic opportunity, social class has been defined by occupation. Mobility is about not being tied to the class of your birth, i.e. your father’s, but being able to have control over your occupational outcome, relative to the opportunities of others. Grammar schools are often cited as offering the life chances which a fair society should offer, which the state education system is not seen to be delivering, that working class children with ability could attain middle class roles.

There are several anachronistic factors in the foregoing: the gendered pattern of employment status; the hierarchical structure of occupational classifications; the singularly upward interpretation of social mobility; and the idea that grammar schools support the working class. Our society has changed over decades to be more middle class and less industrial, with women aspiring to similar status as men, families where both parents work in high status roles and are concerned their children consolidate their social status.

Grammar schools were conceived in a social structure where most people had working backgrounds, and there were predicted to be shortages of educated people to take up highly educated, scientific, professional and supervisory roles. Few people went to university at all and there was greater expansion planned meaning that there was plenty of space for upward mobility without many people coming the reverse direction. People from working class backgrounds could attribute their success to the life chances offered by a grammar school education which they felt fortunate to have offered.

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The Feinstein Graph

One graph has been feted as determining government policy in the UK in respect of early years education, and the need to focus on deprivation early in life. It offers an impressive example of the impact of social science and the importance of investment in large longitudinal studies without which the underpinning analysis could not have been done. But it also raises some awkward questions about how to communicate analyses of these kind without making statistical oversimplifications or the wrong message being taken away.

Leon Feinstein’s graph, seen below, appeared in Economica in 2003 and was soon appearing in Cabinet Office seminars and has been reproduced in many other publications. In the end, it attracted a number of criticisms, although they have deployed new data or new methods to deal with problems thrown up, but it made a mark on a number of politicians. The problem is that the political message taken was one which was not a feature of the analysis but an unintended artefact of the presentation.

Feinstein graphThe graph shows four lines, representing cross classification of rich and poor, smart and dull, as they develop over their childhood, using data from children born in 1970. The groups are identified early on and then their average score on tests is marked to form time series, with the low-low and high-high groups being extreme as might be expected. But what focused the attention of everyone was that the other two lines crossed over, smart poor kids were overtaken by dull rich kids in middle childhood, and you could read off an age when this occurred from the graph.

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Targeting Disadvantage in the Early Years

Practical progress on life chances needs coherent action in the early years

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) is an international organisation akin to the Russell group of countries. Like a think tank they produce policy reports, but with countries as members, these engage governments in thinking about the future of social and economic policies. They also organise conferences, at their headquarters in Paris, which allow civil servants, academics and other interested parties to share evidence and compare case studies of practice.

One of the current strands of work is early childhood education and care (ECEC), on which the secretariat are now preparing the fifth in a series of reports entitled ‘Starting Strong’. While the policy for preschool education has been important in initiatives such as Surestart in the UK, there is a concern that knowledge is not being shared and practice is not developing as much as policy. Thus a decision was taken to hold the first conference ‘Ensemble for Education’ on practical action for early childhood education in Paris in June 2016.

Eduensemble’ is a different venture to academic conferences, being at the OECD presentation was in both French and English, with simultaneous translation over headsets, although many attendees were participating bilingually. That meant politicians and leaders from France participated more easily, with the range of perspectives being quite different to more Anglo-centric experiences. But the main difference was that academic experts were in the minority as presenters were from international organisations such as the World Bank, charitable foundations, and the private sector.

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Communication Skills and Social Mobility

Effective communication is an essential part of employment in the contemporary economy

While we all know that language and communication are a high priority for intervention for a person with an impairment, there is much less acknowledgement of their importance in the general activities of adults. However, in the modern world, communication is essential to social interaction and in the contemporary workplace, where the dominance of the service sector is changing the way people work.

Manual and technical jobs, in production and manufacturing, either did not require literacy or required it in ways that were about using complex and consistent documentation. White collar roles were very hierarchical and relied on very formal modes of communication and contractual structures, requiring high levels of precise literacy. However, the shift to the service sector has replaced many of the former industries, and increasing standards of regulation in others like construction have changed the way people work.

Greater weight is given to customer service and regulatory compliance through dynamic processes with more responsibility for individuals within organisations rather than at the top. More complex roles as part of customer service mean communicating across continents and within countries to meet customer expectations in quite different structures to historic personal interaction. Communication has become core to the contemporary workplace where it would have once been more pragmatic.

This is recognised in the expectations of employers in the midst of the proliferation of skills expected of young people. Literacy and numeracy are taken for granted, and so often fall short of expectations, but many other skills or ‘literacies’ are promulgated by interest groups, employers and educators: Digital skills, financial literacy, basic skills, statistical literacy, life skills, health literacy, functional skills, computer literacy and of course communication skills.

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Life Chances – what are we talking about?

The concept of ‘life chances’ is natural and evocative but where did it come from and what does it mean now?

The term ‘life chances’ was introduced by Max Weber, a German sociologist, in the 1920s. Since then it has been the subject of several theoretical academic texts, such as by Ralf Dahrendorf, Director of the LSE, in the 1970s. Life chances is a combination of things you can do, opportunities society can offer, some where you have no control, and a bit of luck.

Debates about occupational social mobility have been developing since Erikson and Goldthorpe empirically in the 1990s. There is a difference between absolute mobility, having more money, and relative mobility, making more progress than your peers, important as income and work generally are changing. In the 2000s Blanden showed that different patterns emerge looking at income than occupation.

In the 2000s, life chances as a policy term was developed as relating between the ideas of social mobility and equality of opportunity, as well as material and structural factors. More recently these ideas were captured as the idea of fairness by government or equity in health services.

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