Children get hurt while the rich get richer

It is no wonder business leaders are keen to continue Austerity politics. Britain’s superrich have done very well out of Austerity: in fact they’ve doubled their wealth in five years, from £258 to £519bn.

A recent study shows how heavily children have paid for this. We summarise here Kitty Stewart and Polina Obolenskaya’s report The Coalition’s Record on the Under Fives, part of the Social Policy in a Cold Climate series. (We summarised the paper on school spending on 25 February.) The authors conclude that the full impact on this generation will only become clear over time, but it is not too early to be seriously concerned.

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Spending for the Under 5s under Labour increased four-fold from a very low base, and cash benefits more than doubled. The Coalition claimed to be shifting from a ‘narrow focus’ on direct financial support towards better service provision. In reality they made severe cuts to both, directly and via lower council budgets.

Policy has also changed from an emphasis on multi-agency support for the whole child in favour of a narrower emphasis on academic attainment. Civil Servants were instructed no longer to speak of ‘every child matters’ or the ‘five outcomes’ (be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, enjoy economic well-being); the new rhetoric was ‘school readiness’ and ‘helping children achieve more’. (This is not to suggest that Labour policy was unaffected by neoliberal justifications for under 5s spending in terms of future ‘human capital’.)

Service provision

Since many services are locally delivered, the cut in local government spending has been extremely damaging, particularly in larger conurbations: for example 33% in London in real terms, including 24-26% in high-poverty areas such as Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney. The ring-fence round Sure Start was removed, so children’s services have had to compete with other needs. Many children were also harmed by the bedroom tax and reduced budgets for council tax support.

By 2012-13 spending had fallen 21% in real terms including 11% for early education and 29% for targeted support for childcare. The biggest hit was Sure Start at 32%. Indeed, the researchers estimate that, because of the changes in data collection, the cut to Sure Start centres may be as high as 39%.

Local authorities varied in their efforts to protect Sure Start: Camden, for example, cut very little but nearby Brent cut 50%. Centres have struggled to carry on through ‘resilient and creative’ management:

  • staff have been asked to do more, and most say their workload has increased substantially
  • there is increasing dependence on volunteers (now around 1 in 5 staff in the most deprived areas)
  • over a third of centres now charge for some services
  • service provision has become more targeted, with a decrease in ‘stay and play’ and informal peer support for parents.

The shift from universalism to ‘targeting the neediest’ has affected the ability of centres to reach all families in need without stigma, and damaged their ability to practice early intervention and prevention.

DfE figures show a dramatic drop in the number of children’s centres offering full-time childcare: from 1000 (2009) down to 450 (2013) (DfE figures). As childhood expert Professor Kathy Sylva explained to the House of Commons Select Committee “with the targeting, what has gone is having children in the centre”.

The process of improving qualification levels has continued, particularly in private day nurseries which are substantially inferior in this respect to Sure Start centres and school nurseries and classes, but this remains a problem. More centres now have a graduate member of staff, but they constitute only 12-13% of the staff in private nurseries (cf 30% in children’s centres): children having direct access to a qualified graduate can mean as little as one hour a week. As the researchers point out, this is hardly likely to have much of an impact given all that disadvantaged children have to endure and all the cuts that have affected their lives.

This is particularly crucial because disadvantaged children only really benefit developmentally and educationally from nursery places in high quality settings, which depends significantly on staff qualification levels. Whilst Coalition policy maintained the aim of increasing the number of teachers, they redefined ‘Early Years Teacher’ as without a PGCE or Qualified Teacher Status, and therefore failed to establish parity with primary school teachers.

Policy changed in other ways too. The welcome reduction in Early Years learning outcomes from 69 to 17 entailed an increasing stress on ‘school readiness’ rather than broad development. Ofsted were made the ‘sole arbiter of quality’ removing the local authority’s role in supporting improvements; significantly, inspection judgements replaced support and development.

Efforts were made to increase ‘effectiveness’ through some form of payment by results, but proved unworkable and had to be abandoned. The idea espoused by children’s minister Liz Truss of worsening the adult-child ratio for two-year-olds from 1:4 to 1:6 caused uproar and was also abandoned. Pupil Premium was extended to early years, but at a meagre £300.

Financial benefits

Families with children under 5 have been the hardest hit by changes in benefit rules. Comparing the impact on households with children in different income bands, the lowest three income deciles were hit disproportionately.

Though the proportion of children officially classified as poor remained static, this was only because of a decline in median income levels; real poverty has worsened, as shown by measuring against a fixed income line.

Babies are by Austerity measures even before they are born: the abolition of the Health in Pregnancy Grant and of the higher levels of tax credit for the first year of life, as well as the restriction of Sure Start Maternity Grants to first borns, together took out £1230 from a family’s budget between the sixth month of pregnancy and the child’s first birthday.

Earlier progress in health improvements for disadvantaged families has stalled, as measured by the incidence of low birthweight and overweight children. Other issues are more difficult to measure, but there is little doubt that financial pressures impact on parents’ mental health and the emotional climate in the home.

The full impact of austerity politics on this generation will only come clear over time. As the report’s authors conclude:

“It is too early to judge the impact of these developments on children’s outcomes, but not too early to be greatly concerned.”

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