2 March 2023

Docking benefits for truanting is one thing, but the Government can go much further


Earlier this week Michael Gove made the bold suggestion that parents of persistent truants should have their child benefit docked.

There were audible gasps in the room, but is this actually that controversial an idea? The real scandal is that the state doles out £23bn a year in benefits and tax credits for parents, but asks for next to nothing in return. Indeed, there’s a strong case that parental benefits are the ultimate ‘something for nothing’ handout.

Compare the way we treat parents with the way the Department for Work and Pensions deals with the unemployed. Rather than simply handing over Universal Credit, the Government has a carrot-and-stick approach: work coaches to help prepare people’s CVs and practise interviews, along with financial penalties if a claimant does not do everything they can to find a new job.

Gove’s idea of using the benefits system to address truanting is nothing new. Not only did the Levelling Up Secretary himself suggest it in the coalition years, but Tony Blair mooted docking benefits way back in 2002, before settling on the system of fines that still prevails.

But getting kids to attend school is only the tip of the iceberg. There are deeper parenting problems that we are simply not facing up to, perhaps because politicians fear being seen as judgmental, and the media pounce on any suggestion of a minister sounding ‘out of touch’.

We should not be so squeamish when so much is at stake. Kindred Squared, a parenting charity that is willing to confront these issues head on, recently discovered that at least one child in every reception class is turning up unable to communicate clearly, eat independently, or even go to the toilet. Teachers have also told the charity’s researchers that some parents are spending more time on electronic devices than with their children, and have given up on reading to them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the same researchers approached the parents themselves, almost all of them insisted they were doing a terrific job. To put it more precisely, 89% of parents said their child was ready for school in Autumn of last year, whereas teachers put the number at a staggeringly low 54%. Unless we make sure kids are ready to start learning, we risk reducing the role of primary school teachers to that of a glorified carer, as concerned with potty training their charges as teaching them phonics or maths.

And things seem to have gotten worse over the last few years. A scan of Department for Education data shows that since the pandemic the number of parents reading to their preschool children has actually dropped. Incredibly, one in five primary school children have no books at home but more than half have a smart phone. This is also reflected in new research that suggests Britain will miss its target of 9 in 10 primary school leavers reaching expected standards in reading, writing and maths.

So what are the solutions?

For Labour the answer is to simple get the state even more involved. The party has proposed a £6bn expansion of state nurseries, meaning an even bigger bill for taxpayers and very young children spending even less time with their parents. This is not an area that suffers from a lack of government largesse: we already write off 85p in every pound of childcare costs for parents on Universal Credit and give almost all parents thousands of hours of free childcare before their children start school.

Meanwhile, the Government is rolling out its new family hubs – essentially a one-stop shop for family-related services – but nine out of ten parents say they would never use them. This is where ministers now need to focus their attention, there is a mini industry in parenting support from toddlers to teenagers but the challenge is always the same – getting parents in the room.

One of the mistakes made in the past was stigmatising parenting classes, turning them into a naughty step for poorer parents. Instead, the Government should emphasise reciprocity with a ‘cash for classes’ offer. Just as we make demands of jobseekers on Universal Credit, if you want the state to hand over money to support your family, if your kids are falling behind, you need to turn up and learn to be a better parent. Ultimately we need to make getting help and learning the skills of parenthood a normal part of adult life, something everyone does. Some of this can be done online too, it doesn’t have to be tea and biscuits at a local ‘hub’. So far, however, no one has yet grabbed the idea of a big national, online family hub and linking it to benefits.

There’s a broader point here too about the near absence of families from the political debate. That was something Gove sought to put right at his speech this week, pointing to the role of families as a big piece of the ‘future of conservatism’ puzzle. That a senior minister felt the need to emphasise that only goes to show how far down the policy pecking order families have fallen – what was one one of the Tories’ favourite tunes has become something of an afterthought. Put that right, and we’ll all start to see the benefits.

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Frank Young is editorial director at the Civitas think tank.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.