Monthly Archives: April 2012

High hopes…….

Last week, Joseph Rowntree Foundation published 3 papers exploring the role of Aspirations, Attitudes and Behaviours (AABs) in educational outcomes. We have already blogged on this subject a couple of months ago, following a seminar led by Professor Liz Todd, the lead author of one of the JRF reports. This post aims to provide an update following the publication of the JRF reports and attempts to demonstrate why this issue is so important to policy and practice around improving outcomes for disadvantaged children and young people.

As part of a piece of work looking at how local authorities in the North East fulfilled the ‘local duties’ of the Child Poverty Act, I looked at a  number of their Child Poverty Needs Assessments and strategies. Four authorities (out of 12) highlighted ‘raising aspirations’ as a priority for them. Below are a selection of quotes from these documents:

Raise aspirations and expectations of deprived children, families and communities Transforming the aspirations and ambitions of children growing up in poverty and their families is essential if we are to tackle child poverty. Parental aspirations and ambitions for their children can have a significant impact on life chances

There are parents who have had bad experience of schooling and do not see the benefit of education; this attitude perpetuates the continuous cycle of low aspirations.

Research carried out in 2010 … revelaed low aspiration levels in some areas, in many cases as a result of second and third generation family unemployment. Further work in other areas has also shown low aspirations to underpin many ‘negative outcomes’, such as poor attainment, teenage conceptions and anti-social behaviour.

Raising aspirations in our children and young people is important because they influence outcomes.

Some of the most disadvantaged children in the borough suffer from low aspirations and limited ‘mental geography’

Local authorities are not the only organisations in the region who believe that young people (and parents) from poorer backgrounds may need their aspirations raising. Each of the 5 Universities in the region have participated in programmes designed to raise aspirations amongst local children and young people. Newcastle University advertised for a manager for the ‘NE Aspiration Raising Partnership’ in March of this year. For those interested in finding out more about these, using a search engine brings up results for each of the universities but the language is very similar to that which local authorities use:

helps to raise educational aspirations among ‘harder to reach’ groups

We are delighted to be working in partnership … to raise the aspirations and opportunities available for people in the region

There are more examples. The school where I am a parent governor has ‘We seek to raise aspirations…’ as the first words of it’s Vision Statement and a regional conference was organised in 2009 focusing on ‘Raising and Realising Aspirations’. In summary, there appears to be strong consensus that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have low aspirations which need to be raised and, given the involvement of the universities, one would expect some good evidence to support these policies.

However, the JRF reports offer up an alternative view, with one of the main issues being around the quality and quantity of evidence available in this area. Below are some quotations from the 3 reports that were published last week:

If attitudes and aspirations do cause higher levels of attainment, then appropriate interventions can be developed. But if they do not, then money and effort is being wasted on approaches that may even have damaging side effects. (1)

 The review confirmed the association between children’s expectations/aspirations and their attainment. However, the evidence falls short of that needed to assume that it is a causal influence, because no relevant rigorous evaluations of interventions were found. There were no good indications that a child’s aspirations could influence later participation (1)

Our research reinforced the insight that children and parents from low income families have high aspirations and value school, and that parents by and large try their best to support their children’s education. There is evidence that teachers and other professionals may underestimate the aspirations of socio-economically disadvantaged children and parents and not appreciate the importance with which school is viewed. (2)

 The widespread emphasis on raising aspirations, in particular, does not seem to be a good foundation for policy or practice (2)

 Teachers and other professionals may need to revise upwards their estimation of the aspirations of parents and children. (2)

The immediate focus should be on rolling-out and monitoring the implementation of interventions where there is already good evidence, particularly in the area of parental involvement. Interventions in this area should have a clear focus on providing information, support and advice to parents and children, rather than continuing to seek to raise aspirations which are already generally high (3)

It is worth repeating what the Todd et al report says:

The widespread emphasis on raising aspirations, in particular, does not seem to be a good foundation for policy or practice

For what it’s worth, I have yet to come across a parent who didn’t want the best for their child or children and I have not come across many young people in the region (or elsewhere) who have wanted to ‘under-achieve’. Our previous blog highlighted that ‘aspirations’ is used in many different ways and to mean different things and it perhaps isn’t helpful to look at them as linear (low- high). People have very different aspirations for themselves and/or their children, many of which don’t relate to educational attainment or going on to higher education.

As this has been identified as such an important area for tackling child poverty and improving educational attainment amongst poorer children in the North East, it will be very interesting to follow how their policies unfold and develop and whether the JRF research has any ‘impact’. It is worth noting that JRF have already been very supportive of getting this work disseminated in the region and supported the event that Liz Todd presented at recently.

I’ll end by recounting what a prominent and well-respected academic in the North East told me when I broached this subject with them a few months ago:

‘Frankly, some of the stuff I read about young people’s aspirations makes me want to puke.’

What do you think?

Best wishes,


What do people think?





The Trouble with ‘Troubled Families’ (Part 2)

In December of last year, David Cameron announced that his ‘mission in politics’ was to fix ‘the responsibility deficit’ and to support this goal, he committed ‘£448 million to turning around the lives of 120,000 troubled families by the end of this Parliament’. Everyone will no doubt wish the Prime Minister well with this aim of turning around the lives of some of our most disadvantaged families but one must strike a note of caution. What he is proposing to do has never been achieved (if it had, he presumably wouldn’t need to do it). And what is more slightly more troubling, is that the government appear to be intent on doing the same things that others have done in attempting to help ‘problem families’, whilst making unprecedented cuts to public services at the same time.

Professor David Gordon of Bristol University has written that:

The idea of a group of feckless, feral poor people … can be traced from the Victorian ‘residuum’ through theories of pauperism, social problem groups and multiple problem families to the underclass arguments of today (Macnicol, 1987; Mazumdar, 1992; Welshman, 2006).  The problem of poverty was blamed on ‘bad’ genes before the Second World War and on ‘bad’ culture after the discrediting of the eugenics movement by the end of the War.

He goes on to note that the ten year long Transmitted Deprivation Progamme conluded that ‘problem families do not constitute a group which is qualitatively different from families in the general population’ and also reports that a later review of ‘problem family’ literature argued that ‘the idea should be abaondoned’ as it was ‘intellectually incoherent and unsupported by sound scientific evidence’ (PSE, 2011).

The appointment of Louise Casey to lead the Troubled Families Unit in DCLG and a recently announced ‘financial framework’ for Local Authorities working with these families suggest that the rhetoric about ‘turning around the lives’ of these families actually means stopping them for carrying out certain behaviours. Casey is, of course, best known as the ‘Respect Tsar’ (or the ASBO Queen if you read the Daily Mail) and her appointment suggests that ‘tackling’ troubled families will be higher on the agenda than supporting them.

The financial framework identifes 3 areas for improvement over a 6 month period before a ‘payment by results’ allocation to Local Authorities. These areas relate to educational attendance, reduction in ASB and/or youth offending and progession towards employment. Of the original criteria for being a problem family, only the employment status needs to be improved in order for the government to ‘pay out’ and claim a positive result in turning around the life of a family and for a Local Authority to receive funding for helping out. Adressing the other criteria such as material deprivation, poor quality housing, maternal mental health and low income doesn’t figure in terms of what counts as a radical transformation. As long as a family stops behaving like ‘neighbours from hell’ their lives are considered to have been turned around. There is no incentive to take a longer term approach

Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level, made a comment at the Children North East child poverty conference late last year on this subject. His view was that whilst local services are very important, they can only do so much and, unless underlying inequality is addressed, then even if we can turn around the lives of these 120,000 families, another 120,000 will just ‘move up’ and take their place.  The government appear to be happy with tackling the symptoms, whilst not paying much attention to the causes.

Identifying ‘families’ as the site for interventions has also come in for some criticism  in recent times, mainly around issues such as individual agency, normative assumptions about what constitutes a ‘family’ and the pathologising of entire families. A Cabinet Office review of ‘whole family’ approaches stated that:

Whole family approaches to the consequences of social exclusion present tensions and opportunities. Evidence in this review indicates that it cannot be assumed that whole family approaches are appropriate or useful for all families or for all needs. Whole family approaches do not necessarily address the needs of some individuals or ensure that family life is robust and promotes wellbeing.

The report, commissioned by the previous government, also assumes ‘that the experiences of poverty and economic disadvantage run throughout this review , and are core to any consideration of the needs of families with multiple and enduring difficulties’ and that ‘this context is therefore assumed to be integral to any review of families’ experiences and needs’.

Unfortunately, in this instance, it appears that dealing with underlying issues of poverty and inequality are not core but peripheral to considerations about how to improve the lives of these families.

In summary then, a few more concerns about the direction of the Troubled Families agenda can been raised:

  1.  it has been argued that the concept of a group of ‘problem families’ is ‘intellectually incoherent and unsupported by sound scientific evidence’
  2. the current policy focus is explicity about rewarding behaviour change in the short term and not about addressing underlying causes of poverty and disadvantage
  3. Concerns have been raised about the appropriateness of ‘whole family’ approaches to a wide range of individual and/or family issues

Our first post on Troubled Families focused on inconsistencies and conflicts surrounding the definition and criteria of what a ‘troubled family’ looked like. This second post has highlighted some issues surrounding the policy direction being pursued by the Coalition Government. A third, and final, post will explore the ‘chicken and egg’  discourse between this agenda and the wider child poverty agenda. i.e. which came first, poverty or problems?

As ever, your comments on the post would be very welcome.

Best wishes,


The Trouble with Troubled Families (Part 1) can be found here

The Trouble with Troubled Families (Part 2) can be found here

Northern TUC guest post: Regional Pay risks a spiral of decline

Guest post by Neil Foster (not Stephen Crossley)

George Osborne’s Budget announcement that the Government is seeking to support regional and localised public sector pay risks institutionalising the region as an area of low pay and widening inequalities. The Chancellor’s decision to back this proposal has been taken despite no independent economic analysis on the long-term impact of repeatedly reducing real terms pay on low pay areas. It is a policy that should worry and be opposed by all those in relatively low pay regions and who have a positive vision of increasing prosperity and reducing poverty.

The theory, supported by some Conservative ministers along with some right-wing newspaper commentators is simple, but flawed. The argument is that in regions such as the North East the entire public sector should sustain further real terms pay cuts because they are ‘crowding out’ the growth of the private sector. It is said that nationally determined public sector pay is on average higher than private sector workers and it is this which prevents firms from recruiting. It overlooks the fact that many low paid public sector jobs have been outsourced to the private sector or that many jobs cannot be found in the private sector. It ignores that fact that many national private sector firms also use national pay bargaining. Comparisons are weak since many of jobs in the public sector do not exist in the private sector. However the fundamental flaw in all of this is that this ‘crowding out’ theory could ever only have a significant impact in an era of full-employment where most people have a wide range of job offers to pick and choose from.

Anyone in the North East can look out of the window and see we are a million miles away from a scenario of full employment. We currently have the highest unemployment rate of any region in the UK with 9 jobseekers per job vacancy and the public sector shedding 2,000 jobs per month. Private sector employers repeatedly report huge quantities of job applications. Where this is not the case, it is down to a specific skills shortage which making nurses, teacher and social workers poorer will not solve. Instead this policy represents another round of austerity on ordinary public sector workers who are being asked to pick up the tab for a global banking crisis they did not cause. Prior to the crash, between 2003 and 2008 the growth in the North East’s private sector employment was in fact 9.2% and stronger than the public sector at 4.1%. Properly funded public services are the friends of private sector growth, not its enemy.

The consequence of regional pay will be to compound many of the problems facing low pay regions and risk a spiral of decline with an ever-increasing squeeze in the living standards of three million workers in low pay regions in England and across Wales. It won’t make anyone working in the North East better off but will actually threaten high street jobs as more and more wages are reduced and withdrawn from the economy. The region is facing a prolonged demand crisis caused by increased hardship and very low consumer confidence. Taking more money out of people’s pockets will not help kickstart growth. Investment in skills, infrastructure and growth industries to generate jobs will.

It may not be a complete surprise that this regional pay policy is being actively promoted and supported by the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank. In 2008 they published a controversial paper claiming that Northern cities didn’t merit regeneration and were ‘beyond revival’. Instead those in the North should be expected to ‘migrate’ to the South. Enthusiasm for regional and public sector pay may be a consequence of this thinking – it certainly incentivises key public sector workers to desert poorer low pay economies and work in the wealthier areas instead. The impact on teaching could be most severe. Now more than ever we need children and young people in the North to have fair access to the best quality teachers and services to overcome barriers and have an equal start in life. Yet instead there is increased risk of a brain drain where our region finds it harder to retain and attract the best key public sector professionals.

Looking beyond the features of this policy, the thinking behind this and other Government measures reveals a miserable vision where the bulk of UK is configured to service the interests of just one region. The only region outside of London that will in effect be exempt from regional pay policy is also the most prosperous – the South East of England. Many will ask how it can be acceptable that the pay of Northern nurses or Yorkshire’s youth workers should be in any way determined by how many stockbrokers share their postcode. The public are not convinced by it either. A recent UK opinion poll by Survation showed that only 28% of voters saw regional policy as fair with just 17% believing it would help regional economies outside of London and the South East.

The Northern TUC with unions, business figures and council leaders believe this policy is divisive and damaging. It will make it harder for the North East to create jobs, growth and prosperity we need and deserve. Regional pay isn’t just another Government attack on local public sector workers, but represents an active discrimination against the North, Midlands, South West regions and devolved nations. Our region has a lot to lose if this policy is allowed to go ahead, but the most gain if we can stop it. As a country we need to unite and all pull together. It’s time for the Government to play fair and pay fair for both current and future generations.

Neil Foster

Policy and Campaigns Officer

Northern TUC


To support the campaign please email for more information and follow @payfairnow on twitter.

CPAG Guest Post: Save Child Benefit

For over 100 years the British tax and benefit system has recognised the costs of raising children. Families with children, whatever their income, have higher costs than families who do not have children. Since 1977, these costs have been recognised in the tax and benefit system through universal Child Benefit (CB) payments. However this is set to change in 2013, when Child Benefit will be taxed back from families with a higher rate tax payer. While the announcements in the budget – which were widely tipped to fix the problem – were a step in the right direction, they by no means fixed the problem. In fact, they missed the point entirely.

When Child benefit payments stop being universal next year, the UK will join Italy as only the second developed country that does not recognise the costs of children in the tax and benefit system. Families with children have higher costs than those without children – regardless of the household earnings. The question of fairness should not be if a household earning £50,000 needs CB or not, it should be a question of fairness between households earning £50,000 who cover the costs of raising happy, healthy children, and those earning £50,000 who do not.

When the claw-back was announced as a back of an envelope idea at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference, George Osborne declared that any household with a higher rate tax payer would lose CB. Without any clear vision of how this might work, it was suggested that all higher tax rate payers would have the entire value of their household’s CB added to their tax bill at the end of the year. Instead, under the announcements made in the budget, families with one earner taking home over £50,000pa will have 1% of their CB taxed back for every £100 they earn. Rather than being thrown down a cliff edge, families are being pushed down a flight of steps; the tax and benefit system will still cease recognising the costs of raising children.

Children are not a private luxury, and while it might sound clichéd, they quite literally are the future of our society. Child benefit plays a crucial role, it is the means through which society contributes to a small part of the costs of raising the next generation.

On top of this unfair claw-back, CB rates have been frozen for three years, which will see their value decline by over 10 percent in real terms. This cut will hit all families, including those with incomes too low to pay tax in the first place.

The Child Poverty Action Group researched what these two changes will mean to families across the income scale. We surveyed over 350 parents who spoke about dreading these changes, and having to cut back on necessities, like food and fuel, as well as missing out on important treats, like buying birthday presents or going camping. Some parents had already planned strategies on how to stretch family budgets even further, such as going without childcare or seeing relatives, but too many simply did not know how they were going to cut back. Parents felt that payments made for children, and spent on children, were being cut to deal with the deficit. No parent thought their child should pay for the financial crisis.

But importantly, the report (accessible by clicking here or on the image above) also highlighted how crucial Child Benefit payments were for family incomes, right across the income scale. We polled 650 parents and found that CB was spent overwhelmingly on meeting children’s needs (on items such as children’s clothing) or on household needs (like bills and mortgages). As Child benefit payments shrink or are taken away in 100 tiny cuts, so too will families ability to meet these needs.

Child Benefit needs to remain universal, to recognise costs of raising children that all families with children bear. Removing it from some families in tiny cuts to pay for the deficit is faulty logic. All wealthy households, including and especially those without children, should pay their fair share – this is done through progressive taxation, not a tax on Child Benefit. Child Benefit rates also need to be restored in line with inflation. With many families finding it harder to provide for their children, it makes no sense to cut payments that are spent on children.

Rys Farthing

Child Poverty Action Group

CPAG is the leading charity campaigning for the abolition of child poverty in the UK and for a better deal for low-income families and children.

Visit the CPAG website here

The Trouble with ‘Troubled Families’ (Part 1)

There has been a lot of media coverage recently of the ‘troubled families’ agenda and the ‘launch event’ held last week in Downing Street. At the event, David Cameron said:

“I’m committed to transforming the lives of families stuck in a cycle of unemployment, alcohol abuse and anti-social behaviour, where children are truants from school – troubled families who cause such negativity within their communities and who drain resources from our councils.”

Laudable aims indeed, but the approach the government is taking has come in for a lot of criticism and so we’ve decided to do a couple of blogs exploring these. This first post will look at the way that problem families have been ‘identified’ with a couple of follow up posts looking at the concept of a homogeneous bunch of ‘troubled families’ and the unfortunate conflation of this policy with the child poverty agenda. We are not attempting to deny that there are families who do have complex problems and we also acknowledge that there are families who cause lots of problems. Sometimes, these will be the same families, but perhaps not always….


There are, according to the government, approximately 120,000 ‘troubled families’. This figure is derived from work carried out as part of the Families and Children Survey in 2004. So the figures are 8 years old. For North East readers, below is a table of the number of families in each local authority area in the region. National LA figures are available here.

Local   Authority Name Estimated No.   of families with multiple problems
Darlington 275
Durham 250
Gateshead 595
Hartlepool 290
Middlesbrough 570
Newcastle upon Tyne 1,010
North Tyneside 460
Northumberland 650
Redcar and Cleveland 405
South Tyneside 450
Stockton-on-Tees 455
Sunderland 805
Total NE Region 6,215


The identification of ‘troubled families’ relied on families meeting any 5 of 7 criteria in the survey:

a) no parent in work,

b) poor quality housing,

c) no parent with qualifications,

d) mother with mental health problems,

e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness,

f) family has low income,

g) Family cannot afford some food/clothing items

One of the major criticisms of the ‘troubled families’ agenda (see Jonathan Portes blog, Channel 4’s FactCheck and for example) is that these criteria do not include anything relating to troubling behaviours, such as crime, anti-social behaviour, child neglect or truancy or substance misuse. Professor Ruth Levitas recently wrote to The Guardian on this subject and stated that:

“None of these constitute behaviours that need government intervention to prevent reoffending. There is no evidence in the analysis of any link to offending. Government rhetoric makes a quite illegitimate and cynical slide from families who undoubtedly have troubles, through troubled families, which suggests they are somehow dysfunctional as families, to families who cause trouble. This is yet another example of government misuse of research and demonisation of the poor and the sick”

Contrast this the infographic above produced by DCLG making a link with domestic violence, with the statement made by David Cameron at the launch event and the statement on the DCLG Troubled Families webpage:

“A troubled family is one that has serious problems – including parents not working, mental health problems, and children not in school – and causes serious problems, such as crime and anti-social behaviour.”


However, in a couple of recent and very interesting developments, the definition of a ‘troubled family’ is beginning to shift to one which is more in line with the policy direction being advocated by the Government. On 29 March 2012, the Department for Education updated a webpage on ‘families with multiple and complex needs’ with the following information:

Multiple and complex needs of families includes a combination of (amongst others):

  • Persistent offending behaviour
  • Persistent anti-social behaviour
  • Prejudiced behaviour
  • Mental health issues
  • Drugs and alcohol issues
  • Domestic violence
  • Safeguarding issues
  • Vulnerability
  • Poverty
  • Debt
  • Worklessness.

This could be a different set of families but there are several links and pages on the DfE website that strongly suggest otherwise. No evidence of further information on how these families have been identified is published on the site, as far as I can tell. Given the concerns regarding the mixing of having problems with causing problems, one might expect the Government to publish any evidence they have in their possession that demonstrated the link between the two.

The ‘Financial framework for the Troubled Familes programme’, produced by the DCLG, states that ‘Troubled Families ‘are households who:

  1. Are involved in crime and anti-social behaviour
  2. Have children not in school
  3. Have an adult on out of work benefits
  4. Cause high costs to the public purse

In other words, a completely different set of criteria to the one which was used to identfiy the families in the first place. The framework also makes a number of assumptions and refers to ‘estimates’ in making the link between families having problems and causing them:

These families almost always have other often long-standing problems which can lead to their children repeating the cycle of disadvantage. One estimate shows that in over a third of troubled families, there are child protection problems. Another estimate suggests that over half of all children who are permanently excluded from school in England come from these families, as do one-in-five young offenders” (my emphases)

No references to the sources of these estimates are provided

So, in summary, it appears that there are at least 3 arguably major problems with the measurement and identification of the 120,000 ‘troubled families’:

  1. The data is 8 years old
  2. There appears to be no evidence linking families experiencing trouble or problems themselves to families causing trouble or problems for others
  3. There appear to be different and fluid terms and definitions across different government departments for the same ‘group’ of families, which will obviously have policy and practice implications.

In coming weeks, we will return to this topic to explore some troubles surrounding the concept of ‘troubled families’ and its (in my view) unfortunate conflation with the child poverty agenda.

Best wishes,


The Trouble with Troubled Families (Part 2) can be found here

The Trouble with Troubled Families (Part 3) can be found here


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