31 Dec 2006

".......aspects of social exclusion are deeply intractable" [or are we just failing to measure them properly?]

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said in a speech entitled, "Our sovereign value: fairness" :

"...... some aspects of social exclusion are deeply intractable. The most socially excluded are very hard to reach. Their problems are multiple, entrenched and often passed down the generations."

There is a hint - with "generations" - that the most intractable problems are connected with parenting, though nothing to suggest that the difficulties in parenting could be connected with the relationship of the parents.

In contrast, the Conservatives seem to be suggesting that both the relationship of the parents and the family structure are important, and they point out that the break up rate of couples with children is much greater for cohabiting as compared with married couples.

Tony Blair identified 4 groups with special problems:

"1. ...... 61,000 children in care at any one time. They run very high risks of being unemployed, having mental health problems and becoming teenage parents. We need to be frank - we are not yet succeeding. 1 in 10 children in care get 5 good GCSEs compared to 6 out of 10 of other children. Only 6 per cent make it to higher education compared to 30 per cent of all children.

2. Second, families with complex problems - the Respect Task Force identified 7,500 such families. A child born into the most disadvantaged 5 per cent of families is 100 times more likely to have multiple problems at age 15 than a child from the 50 per cent best-off families. One of the biggest problems we face is parents who misuse alcohol. One in eleven children in the UK live with at least one such parent. These children have to take on more responsibility for running their family, they worry that the secret might be revealed, they often struggle at school and many start to use alcohol and drugs themselves.

3. Third, teenage pregnancies, of which there are 40,000 in the UK at any one time. Like looked-after children, teenage parents are more likely to end up unemployed, have mental health problems and themselves have children who have babies as teenagers. We have made some progress here - conception rates are at their lowest for 20 years.

4. And fourth, mental health patients. Between 125,000 and 600,000 people in Britain have a severe and enduring mental health problem. About 70,000 are on Incapacity Benefit and employment rates among the mentally ill have been falling, despite the fact that the majority are keen to work. The links with other problems are notable: half of those mis-using drug and alcohol have mental health problems.

The fact that we have yet to succeed with these groups is not for want of spending. The state spends £1.9bn acting in loco parentis for children in care. It costs about £110,000 a year to keep a child in residential care. And there is very little relationship between spending and outcomes. Families with complex problems cost between £50,000 and £250,000 each. Every teenage pregnancy costs an average of £57,900 in the first five years. A mental health bed costs £1,365 a week.

The problem is not that we are not trying, nor that the money is not being committed. It is that we need a radical revision of our methods. The Social Exclusion Plan will be guided by five principles: early intervention, systematically identifying what works, better co-ordination of the many separate agencies, personal rights and responsibilities and intolerance of poor performance.

......... The protective factors are not surprising - affectionate families, adequate attention from parents......

......... It might mean that a more intense health-visitor programme is arranged. Or it might mean parenting classes are offered.........

......... Of course prediction will never be perfect. But the combination of risk and protection means that we can now be reasonably confident that we can identify likely problems at a very early stage.

At any one time, children in care make up about 0.5 per cent of all children. But one quarter of the adult prison population has been in the children's care system at some point.

Around a third of looked-after children end up as NEETs (not in employment, education or training).

The daughter of a teenage mother is twice as likely to become a teenage mother compared with a daughter of an older mother.

Children from the 5 per cent of the most disadvantaged households are more than 100 times more likely to have multiple problems at age 15 than those from the 50 per cent of most advantaged households.

Boys with a convicted father are over three times more at risk of being convicted of a crime than those with a non-convicted father.

125,000 children have a parent in custody - and 65 per cent of children with parents in prison go on to offend.

We then need to be clear about schemes that work and encourage the spread of good practice. We will provide a government hallmark for programmes that have proved to be effective........ We will incentivise good practice.............."

[Like marriage? Preparation for marriage?]

It is not for the State to tell people that they cannot choose a different lifestyle, for example in issues to do with sexuality. All that has changed and rightly. But where children are involved and are in danger of harm or where people are a risk to themselves or others, it is our duty not to stand aside. Their fate is our business."

There is a stark anomoly - amounting to hypocrisy - in what Tony Blair is saying:

a) "It is not for the State to tell people that they cannot choose a different lifestyle, for example in issues to do with sexuality.............." [i.e. 'cohabit if you wish'] and, in the same breath

b) "We will incentivise good practice" [but in practice do the opposite by incentivising cohabitation and single parenthood].

In fact, far from "systematically identifying what works", Tony Blair and his colleagues take a myopic view of the research that points to the benefits of marriage and of research informed marriage preparation programmes.

Is it adhering to the "sovereign value: fairness" when you only look at research which supports your point of view?

Like Labour the Conservatives tend to quote national figures.

The most powerful motivator would be to publish all the relevant neighbourhood statistics for social and domestic cohesion - combined with an index - so local leaders, GPs and health visitors, parish councillors, school governors, faith and other community leaders can easily measure whether their area is becoming more or less cohesive, and to what extent local policies and programmes are working.

Labour have created a precedent for this with their local authority league table of performance in reducing teenage pregnancy.

But teenage pregnancy is only one aspect of social and domestic cohesion; figures for the other elements and an index should be published, and by neighbourhood, as well as by local authority.

27 Dec 2006

US “marriage movement"

In the first in a four-part series in the Washington Times Cheryl Wetzstein writes:

…In the marriage arena, two forces for change have been particularly notable. One is a “marriage movement,” formed six years ago to reverse the trend of family breakdown in America.

Current domestic policies “are based on acceptance of family breakdown and are focused on dealing with the aftermath and fallout,” Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, said when the group’s “statement of principles” was announced in June 2000. The original statement — signed by more than 100 academic, religious, political and civic leaders — was updated in 2004, with 86 pledges for action, including expanding marriage education, reforming state divorce laws and developing model pro-marriage legislation.

Pro-marriage allies also received an unprecedented boost this year when 225 pro-marriage and responsible-fatherhood organizations were awarded federal grants worth nearly $120 million a year. The new five-year funding “shows where our priorities are,” says Elizabeth Marquardt, author of “Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce” and director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. It also revealed an important political consensus — that both Republicans and Democrats think marriage matters, she says. Such a consensus “is a significant achievement” that should bring long-term dividends, beyond the marriage grants. more

How long will it take for a "political consensus" that "marriage matters" to develop in the UK? The first stage could be for local authorities - persuaded by the benefits - to promote local policies for social and domestic cohesion and education programmes through register offices, schools, and adult and family learning centres.

People who would like to write to their local councillors can do so very easily by visiting www.campaignon.com/cohesion

19 Dec 2006

Local policies for domestic and social cohesion

David Cameron "has re-committed himself to supporting marriage through the tax system", though 'Breakdown Britain' was not supposed to be about remedies, which are to come later.

It's a bit rich for him to say so, but Michael Portillo argues:

"[David Cameron] has already jumped to the conclusion that family breakdown is at the heart of our horrendous social problems, and has re-committed himself to supporting marriage through the tax system. Duncan Smith looked embarrassed as Cameron converted 300,000 words of serious study into a soundbite that endorsed his preconceptions.....
..............Cameron’s idea of tax breaks is a worthy successor to Marie Antoinette’s exhortation that the poor eat cake when short of bread........... By commissioning Duncan Smith’s reports Cameron has made inequality a political issue. But it is still hard to believe that either the Tories or Labour are serious about tackling it." 'Duncan Smith pins down Britain, the unequal nation'

It really would be fairer to increase the personal tax allowance and make it transferable between spouses, as the Conservatives seem to be suggesting. Not only would it be helpful to poorer married couples with children and only one earner, but it would also help poorer retired couples - with one personal or occupational pension - to avoid the need to claim a currently means tested pension credit. This is social justice, but for the distant future, maybe 2010 or later. As has been amply demonstrated by research from CARE and CIVITAS , the current tax/benefit system favours cohabitation and single parents at the expense of married couples. The balance must be redressed.

At the next general election the Conservatives will need to convince the electorate that they mean what they say well before it. A tax break for married couples was belatedly introduced in the manifesto before last, a proposal to make the personal tax allowance transferable for couples with children up to the age of eleven.

This was when Michael Portillo was Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. There was no such commitment in the last manifesto. It doesn't really look as if it is something the Conservatives believe in for the purposes of furthering social justice, more of a ploy to attract votes when it suits them, especially in the light of Michael Portillo's underhand reference to "Marie Antoinette’s exhortation that the poor eat cake", since he had proposed it in an earlier election.

Conservative local authorities could to be operating pro-marriage and family policies well before the next election. At present electors are entitled to ask, "What are the Conservatives actually doing now - in places where they have control - to support marriage and family life?"

The truth is, "precious little"!

Michael Portillo says, "...... it is still hard to believe that either the Tories or Labour are serious about tackling [inequality]". The Conservatives don't have their hands on many of the levers of power, but they do control the Local Government Association. David Cameron seems to be willing to announce tax breaks for married couples, so let's hear from him soon about the practicable measures the Conservatives could implement locally now. He could very easily prove that Michael Portillo is wrong.

Promoting local policies for social and domestic cohesion based on neighbourhood statistics would be a good start. Marriage and family policy is much more susceptible to efforts made in homes and neighbourhoods - with the backing of faith and community leaders - than to the rhetoric emanating from Westminster, especially when it comprises tax breaks that cannot be implemented for several years hence, and to which no immediate political or financial cost is attached.

Advertising marriage and family learning programmes - run by voluntary groups - through register offices and other venues operated by local authorities, following guidelines recommended by the Local Government Association, would demonstrate that the Conservatives "are serious about tackling [inequality]".

Will the Conservatives go for the bird in hand, or carry on talking about [those tax breaks in] the bushes? As Janet Daley says, “
Don’t talk, fix it!”

15 Dec 2006

More on SEAL - taking ownership - talk2me

The SEAL guidance recommends:

"When teaching social, emotional and behavioural skills the teacher/practitioner should be constantly asking themselves how they can encourage children to take ownership. Ideas might include:

• involving children fully in the decision to implement the SEAL curricular approach, and making sure they, as well as adults, understand the purpose of the work and the hoped-for outcomes;
• involving them in the identification of criteria that demonstrate success;
• involving them in the evaluation of their learning;
• providing choice as to how activities and tasks are completed and information presented;
• allowing them to determine their own questions for enquiry and debate;
• using behaviour management techniques that encourage children to make a choice about their behaviour;
• providing opportunities for children to determine class and playground rules and routines, and ground rules for the activities to develop their social, emotional and behavioural skills;
• providing opportunities for children to explore how they might establish a classroom environment and ethos that promotes good learning and emotional well-being.

Many schools have school councils that allow children to take part in decision-making within the whole-school context. These are most effective when they are supported by regular class councils or circle time that provide a forum for class and school issues to be discussed."

This last point: "school councils that allow children to take part in decision-making" is a good way of "involving them in the identification of criteria that demonstrate success [and] involving them in the evaluation of their learning........"

A good way to advance and to evaluate progress in personal, social and emotional education is to use talk2me. The school council can be involved in the process of implementing talk2me which will prompt the pupils to think about "taking ownership".

14 Dec 2006

SEAL - Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning

The SEAL guidance contains this:

"Most primary schools and settings are clearly doing much to promote social and emotional learning already as a key aspect of their school or setting culture. They may do this through the whole-school environment, the Foundation Stage personal, social and emotional area of learning and the Key Stages 1 and 2 PSHE/Citizenship curriculum,1 their approach to spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, the framework of the National Healthy School Standard (NHSS), or through the opportunities they provide for art, music and drama. Or they may be promoting children’s development through other initiatives such as circle time, self-esteem approaches, peer mediation, and commercially available schemes that specifically teach social, emotional and behavioural skills. In addition many schools and settings provide extra support for children whose behavioural, social or emotional development is of concern."

So it's Ok for children to learn "spiritual, moral, social and cultural development", but if politicians mention it in the context of single mothers, cohabiting couples, or any other adult group shown by research to be more likely to be associated with poor outcomes than married couples, is it simply a case of 'nanny state' interfering? What's wrong with giving adults the chance to engage in "spiritual, moral, social and cultural development" if they missed out at home or at school?

"The development of skills such as being able to defer gratification, take responsibility for one’s own actions, understand and deal with peer pressure, act assertively, feel positive about oneself and manage an increasingly complex range of feelings......"

Can the development of these 'skills' - what about 'values'? - be explored with adults who wish to learn about them without journalists and politicians pontificating about retrograde steps to Victorian values? There is much humbug in the supposition that what children are expected to learn should not also be understood by adults.

Sex education questions - House of Commons 13/12/06

Patrick McFadden (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office) made some sensible comments, including:

"Good quality PSHE can make an important contribution to young people's emotional development. Young people value sex education that is set in the context of discussions about relationships and the responsibilities involved, and that is what the Government aim to provide....."

"....... education should prepare young people for life, and that the emotional aspects of sex education are important. In addition to providing PSHE, we are putting an emphasis on sex and relationship education. A programme on the social and emotional aspects of learning, known as the SEAL programme, is already in place in one third of schools, and another third is expected to introduce it by mid-2007. All that is part of the effort to increase confidence and maturity, and to help to prepare young people for coping with making important decisions later in life......"

"It is absolutely right to say that parental involvement and a parental role is important. It is important, both for parents and schools, that we have a full and frank discussion about the issues. We should discuss them openly and not try to sweep them under the carpet........"

So what is the real difficulty HMG has in inviting prospective parents to discuss marriage and relationships education and in promoting educational programmes through Register Offices and other venues?