A Life Chances Act must protect children's futures

Posted by Shelley Hopkinson / Monday 07 December 2015 / Early intervention Children's centres Inequality
girl in red apron smiling

Childhood is short. Those first few precious years when we learn the basic skills which guide the rest of our lives have a tendency to flash before our parents eyes. Learning to walk, to talk, to love and be loved. It is in these critical years that we draw the blueprint of our future.

A child’s ability to learn, form relationships and enjoy good health in their earliest years is a result of their interactions and the nurture they have received to help them grow. What is more, good development in the early years is strongly associated with positive outcomes in later life.

Members of the House of Lords are today debating the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which in part amends the Child Poverty Act 2010. Action for Children is interested in two parts of the Bill. The first changes the way the Government thinks about poverty, shifting instead to talk about ‘life chances’ and removing income from its assessment. The second defines how ‘life chances’ should be measured and reported on – the current proposal being how many parents work and how well young people do in their GCSEs when they reach 16.

Income may not be the whole story of child poverty, but money matters to families who are struggling to provide the basics for their children. A hot dinner on the table, or a decent pair of shoes can make the difference to a child’s early experiences.

"Sadly, 2.4 million children living in poverty in the UK are living in working families."

Action for Children is part of the End Child Poverty coalition, which is campaigning to keep income as a measure of poverty.

If the purpose of this new law is to improve children’s futures then basing decisions on a few limited measures is a missed opportunity. The current ‘life chances’ proposals largely ignore children until they are about to leave childhood behind. 

A child who is five years old today will not take their GCSEs until 2026. Not only is this is too late to improve their future chances, but government will not be accountable for improving them for ten years. Two General Elections will have taken place before then.

Action for Children is working with members of the House of Lords, from across the political parties, to propose a different approach. A Life Chances Act must include developmental milestones throughout childhood, particularly in the early years.

"Exam results at age 16 do not reflect how far development in the earliest months of our lives affects our futures – from our health to our likelihood of being employed."

It is widely recognised that giving children the best start in life provides the building blocks for emotional wellbeing, educational achievement and employment. In turn, they will be better equipped as parents to create positive environments for their own children.

Successive governments will have different views about the drivers of poverty and will continue to review the way it is measured. Today, the Welfare Reform and Work Bill is a chance to set our sights on children’s futures at the earliest period in their life. Our amendment to Clause 4 (number 22) will hold successive governments to account for delivering policies that support children’s cognitive, social and physical development in the early years.

By measuring those milestones where there is overwhelming evidence of the impact on future life chances and placing this on the face of the Bill, we can ensure that children do not fall victim to short term political cycles.

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