David Blackburn

Field caught between reality and fantasy

Field caught between reality and fantasy
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Frank Field's been thinking. He will make his report on poverty next week and he hints at its contents in an extensive interview with the Times (£). He is convinced that there is more to social mobility than money and he has some brilliantly simple ideas to alleviate poverty. He advocates creating four or five terms in the school year to shorten the long summer holiday, which he argues disadvantages the poor.

'They have less help at home so they lose out even more in long holidays. They drop behind, they are not being read to or tutored or talked to in the same way as many middle-class children. They have often fallen behind by the beginning of the next school year.The school year is also out of kilter with mums working. Every parents’ group I have met has said they dread the long summer holiday.'

But the summer holiday is an elongated version of a constant problem: how to improve parenting whilst keeping parents in work? Ironically, Field thinks money is the answer. He wants the proposed Pupil Premium to go to parents, not schools. He tells the Times:

'Parents could choose activities in the holidays that richer parents choose — enrol them on courses — just one visit somewhere can wreck your week’s budget. I think we should look at when it is good for parents to have the money and when it is good for the schools to have it.'

So too with benefits - Field would rather see the steady dribble of child benefits (up to £100,000 over 19 years by his estimate) arrive in one lump sum at birth. 

'Parents should be able to say, ‘I would like to take a quarter of that now’ after their baby is born — £25,000 tax-free will allow them greater choice over when to go back to work.'

Encouraging greater class interaction and giving mothers flexibility are admirable, but I'm not conviced by either of Field's money proposals. Teachers on the Teach First programme (who teach in failing schools in deprived areas) say one thing: parents are the problem. Many are uninterested in their children's education; many are incapable of managing their finances. By no means is bad parenting the preserve of the poor - look at the royals. But handing over the price of an Audi for giving birth makes giving single mothers a council house look mean. The state's role in education and child rearing needs to be reimagined, its grip weakened. But the state cannot become a mere conduit for yet more well-intentioned waste.