Tag Archives: jrf

What is made can be unmade

I was recently invited to say a few words about the work of the North East Child Poverty Commission at the Mayor’s Reception in Gateshead. Councillor Malcolm Brain, a member of the Commission, has been named as the Mayor of Gateshead for the coming 12 months and he has nominated the Commission as one of his ‘good causes’. So, not wanting to depress the audience, I tried to focus on reasons to be optimistic about efforts to tackle child poverty.

It may seem strange at the current time to be thinking optimistically about the future but I believe there is good reason why people working on the child poverty agenda should remain positive, in the longer term at least. I also appreciate that the content of my recent blogs has not been overly cheerful and I wanted to write something that provided an alternative view to the one which you normally get here……

This week, we have already seen CPAG release an excellent report focusing on different aspects of child poverty, looking at where progress has been made and highlighting lessons that can be learnt from previous policies. Whilst the publication of the HBAI statistics tomorrow will inevitably show that the government missed it’s own 2010 target, they will also highlight that hundreds of thousands of children were lifted out of poverty as a result of a strong policy focus on this agenda.

Reasons to be positive (if not cheerful)

There are lots of reasons to be positive. There is (publicly at least) cross party support for a legally binding commitment to ending child poverty. According to the 2011 British Social Attitudes Survey 82% of the public think that it is ‘very important’ to reduce child poverty in Britain (a further 16% think it is ‘quite important’) with 79% of people thinking that central government should be responsible for doing this. A relatively new focus on a children’s rights based approach to tackling poverty ‘offers the potential to orientate current policy debates in positive directions’ (p23). The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) ‘takes as its starting point not deprivation but assets’ and ‘the strengths and capabilities of people living in poverty’. The Webb Memorial Trust have recently announced that they are going to ‘spend down’ their resources over the coming years with an emphasis on ‘solution focussed literature’.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation have estimated that the cost of child poverty is almost as high as what it would take to end it. They are also currently working on a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy for the U.K. CPAG’s manifesto identifies ’10 steps to reduce inequality and put children first’. The Smith Institute have produced a comprehensive document looking at what we have learnt from a century of anti-poverty policies. Richard Dickens has looked at the record of the Labour government in an article called ‘Child Poverty in Britain: past lessons and future prospects’. The Fabian Commission on Life Chances and Child Poverty found that, when participants in discussions were presented with the reality of life in poverty, there was a ‘willingness to countenance higher taxes and redistribution to combat poverty and disadvantage’. Do we really need a shiny ‘new’ approach or, as I have suggested here before, just a robust one?

Political priorities

So, in my humble opinion, we know quite a bit about how to end child poverty and ‘what works’ in this area already. Nandy and Minujin, talking about global child poverty, state that:

No new scientific or technological breakthroughs are needed to deal with any of the dperivations or domains of poverty identified by international definitions; governments already know how to provide their populations with safe water, sanitation and adequate housing. What is lacking (as it has always been) is the necessary political will to prioritise children’s needs and to choose to spend the reources required. (original emphasis)

Speaking about the potential cost of domestic child poverty in a chapter called ‘Utopia calling: eradicating child poverty in the United Kingdom and beyond’ from the same book as the Nandy and Minujin statement, Ruth Levitas, highlights that:

‘what is conceivable in terms of public intervention now needs revision, in the light of the vast sums of public money poured into bailing out the financial sector: it is a matter of political priorities’


‘High wages and salaries, and City bonuses, are not determined by supply and demand, but frequently, as has recently been so clearly demonstrated, by the power of certain groups to reward themselves. Conversely, it is not inevitable and natural but a matter of social policy that 80% of children living in households with no one in paid work are in poverty’

(my emphases)

This chapter is one of the most inspiring and thought-provoking I have read and I would recommend people read it where possible.* Levitas goes beyond the goal of ‘eradicating’ child poverty (getting it below 10%) by 2020 and argues that ‘the utopian method serves to highlight the limitations of current policy and the framework within which future plans are constructed and constrained’ and that this should be the ‘necessary starting point for social justice in the future and the real eradication of child poverty’

So, hopefully we can see that there is much to be positive about in tackling poverty. The short term picture may not be particularly rosy but there has been a lot of progress made since, for example, John Moore declared, slightly prematurely, ‘the end of the live for poverty’ in 1989. Child Poverty is not a natural phenomenon, it is not something that will always be with us and it is not an inevitable part of modern day life. Nor is it imaginary, invented by ‘sociologists like Peter Townsend (who) wanted to argue that poverty was still a major problem in Britain’. It is real, it is measurable and its effects are social facts that cannot be denied.

If poverty is the product of political decisions (and I believe it is) and not cultural or genetic differences then political decisions can end child poverty. What is made, therefore, can be unmade.

*If you can’t get hold of a copy of the book, Ruth Levitas has an excellent introduction to the concept of Utopia and what it can offer sociology and social policy, from her inaugural lecture in 2005, is available free and called The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society.

I am going to try and post another blog or two here in the near future looking in more depth at Utopianism and the work of other organisations such as the New Economics Foundation and Compass who have both developed  ideas for a better society.

The cartoons included in the blog are from the Jacky Fleming website – lots more can be found here


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?

(1) http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/aspirations-educational-attainment-participation


(3) http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/aspirations-attitudes-educational-attainment-roundup

Aspirations! Are they a barrier to educational attainment?

‘The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations’

Adam Smith

(Image produced by Ros Asquith and taken from The Guardian on o3/05/20111 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/cartoon/2011/may/03/schools-tuition-fees)

A couple of weeks ago we held an event looking at the role of aspirations in educational attainment. Professor Liz Todd from Newcastle University discussed some of the policy assumptions around this area and touched on some findings from her forthcoming research with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This post will, hopefully, provide attendees and others an opportunity to comment on this area of work.

Liz’s work and other reports from JRF challenge a lot of the assumptions that ‘raising aspirations’ – mainly amongst young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – can lead to an increase in attainment. There is remarkably little evidence that such an approach is likely to succeed or, indeed, that poorer families have lower aspirations than more affluent families.

And yet, this lack of evidence does not stop newspaper articles like this one in The Telegraph, policy initiatives such as this one from the previous government highlighted in The Guardian under the headline ‘Government plan to raise aspirations of millions of children’ or political speeches like this one from Andy Burnham which include the lines:

All across England, you can hear the sound of falling aspiration. And it’s terrifying. Tony Blair said his priorities were education, education, education. And because of what he did we can now go further: aspiration, aspiration, aspiration.

A separate JRF report on achievement and aspirations by Goodman & Gregg found that:

The evidence on school and local-based interventions to improve young people’s social and emotional skills, behaviour, and participation in positive activities needs to be strengthened. In particular, there is very little evidence on whether these eventually lead to improved school attainment

Liz asked during her presentation ‘what do we mean by aspirations?’ and a recent study by researchers at Leeds University suggested that aspirations amongst parents from different backgrounds were not necessarily linear (low-high) but that they were qualitatively different. They suggest that different parents attach greater or lesser importance to the role of formal education in their child’s development and this was dependent on many factors. A number of parents wanted their children to be safe, to be happy or to know the difference between right and wrong, whereas other parents talked about their children’s development in more academic and educational terms

Many working-class parents were strongly exercised by their children’s formal education, saw it as necessary to a good start in life, and manifested a strategic orientation towards their children’s educational success. Other working-class parents manifested a more limited sense of efficacy in influencing their children’s educational future. This was more typically associated with greatest disadvantage, although a range of factors were evident, and disadvantage in itself did not undermine hopeful action in respect of education.

Liz also asked, with the aid of Charlie Brooker (bad language and extreme cynicism warning) at one point what kind of education system we wanted and what kind of society we wanted to live in. Another research project, looking at white middle class parents (typically those characterised as having ‘high aspirations’)who sent their children to urban ethnically diverse schools  found that:

These (pro-welfare, left-leaning) parents are also playing the educational market and capitalising on educational investments. Whilst most would claim they want a good education for all children, their actual social practices in the educational arena are still primarily about competition and trying to generate a greater profit than other parents. This paucity of aspiration comes as something of a surprise. The irony here is that it has traditionally been the white working-classes who have been judged for a paucity of aspirations: perhaps it is just that the circumscribed range of aspirations differs for different classes

So, what do you think – and how do we begin to change the tone of the discussions around aspirations? Can we get policy makers and politicians to start talking about ‘realising aspirations’ or, as Liz suggested ‘keeping aspirations on track’? Or do you have any unanswered questions regarding what you heard at the event or what you have just read above?

Kind regards,


Liz’s forthcoming work with JRF is likely to be published in March or April, along with another report exploring evidence around the role of  aspirations in educational attainment. JRF recently published a report called ‘The influence of parents, places and poverty on educational attitudes and aspirations’ and also have a wide ranging area of work looking at the links between education and poverty that can be found here:


If you would like a copy of the presentation that Liz gave at the event, please contact me at s.j.crossley@durham.ac.uk

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