The drivers of a fairer society, according to the Levelling Up White Paper, are infrastructure, workforce, innovation, financial capital and social capital – defined as the ‘strength of communities relationships and trust’.
But scratch below the surface and what is the bedrock of any strong community and of all good relationships built on trust? Family. It provides the first template for how to behave, connect, and aspire. A stable family teaches self-discipline, instils self-confidence, and stokes ambition. It holds the key, in other words, to levelling up. A chaotic family instead will trap a child in an intergenerational cycle of worklessness, substance misuse, and abuse. Far more than poor roads, digital access or even skills, it is this poverty of aspiration that holds back the have-nots from the haves.
Yet the Levelling Up White Paper relegates the family to a handful of footnotes and a few passing references to existing policies. No new investment is forthcoming – even though the Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman has shown that investing in a child’s first 1001 days, when they are still in the family fold, delivers the greatest return.
If the Government followed the science on levelling up the way it did in dealing with the pandemic, it would recognise that neuroscience shows parents who engage with their children from infancy are more likely to raise a happy and healthy child. Supporting parental ‘attachment’ would reduce the child mental health needs that have spiralled during lockdowns – where before the pandemic one in nine children aged 4-11 suffered from a diagnosable mental health condition, that figure is now one in six. In disadvantaged areas of the country, year-long waiting lists for mental health services (in Margate families wait up to three years) condemn children to struggle with escalating issues – and councils with huge costs: £192,000 per child with acute needs.
Encouraging a positive ‘home learning environment’ (read: family) is a worthwhile investment also because in 2020 almost half of children aged four or five who arrived for their first year in reception were not ‘ready for school’. A child’s school readiness at five influences their ability to read, write and forge relationships but also their long term outcomes – including a poor attendance record, which often leads to exclusion, substance misuse, recruitment by a gang and even jail. The Government’s recent commitment to Family Hubs, a Centre for Social Justice recommendation, is welcome and restated in the White Paper. But imagine how Middlesbrough and Newcastle, which have the highest rate of severe absence in the country — 70% higher than the national rate – would benefit from some investment in supporting parents at the crucial stage. Surely a great step towards levelling up.
Finally, the White Paper should have looked at childcare for a clear measure of regional unfairness. Childcare is now so expensive that in six out of nine English regions it outstrips a woman’s salary. The costs are also higher than the median hourly salary in the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, East Midlands, West Midlands and the South West. It now stands at £7,160 a year.
All parents may wish the best for their children, but positive family relationships do not come automatically to all – they are habits that can be taught and modelled. Many evidence-based programmes do just that. If the Government were to invest in these, they would obtain the outcome they claim to seek: a fairer country for all its people.
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