Listening to the voices of the poor is key to tackling social exclusion
Listen and earn
It’s 1995, and mid-morning in the only playgroup serving the large and dilapidated housing estate, near Bristol. The theme for the month is People Who Help Us. This week it’s the turn of local community police officers to visit and talk to the children. As a uniformed policeman bends his head to enter the low door, a four-year-old boy looks up and shouts ‘Look out! It’s the Bill!’
Fast forward to 2007, and the housing stock is improved, a new children’s centre has opened and local schools have improved. Yet social exclusion remains deep-seated; too many children miss normal developmental goals and too many adult lives are locked into poverty, lacking the qualifications which would enable them to trade up into new employment opportunities.
In 2005, the government admitted that Sure Start – the cornerstone of its commitment to eradicate disadvantage – had not yet been shown to be effective and, in particular, was not reaching the most disadvantaged families. This was confirmed, a year later, by the National Audit Office, which found that fewer than half of children’s centres were targeting those in the greatest need.
Within the recently published Social Exclusion Action Plan and the DfES Every Parent Matters statement, policy remains firmly focused on early intervention, with a range of new measures to support parenting, particularly in relation to children’s early learning, targeted on the most excluded families. While it is true that family and parenting education can support the wellbeing of children, there are reasons to worry about a developing family policy which equates poverty and social exclusion with poor parenting.
Instead, it might be more productive to explore more fully why families might disinvest from education and other services and from the resulting understanding, reshape these initiatives to ensure a fairer distribution of resources.
Data from the ESRC Families and Social Capital Project suggest that far from being inept parents, child-rearing practices among poor families may be grounded in a ‘material and social reality’ which is not readily understood from the viewpoint of middle-class values. Disadvantaged parents are in fact heavily invested in the wellbeing of their children, but their priorities are about protecting their children from a range of adversities, and parents’ interaction with schools are fractured by a class divide.
That material social reality also includes unemployment and poor qualifications. From this viewpoint, it is possible to see why living on benefits might seem the best of a poor range of options, representing a secure and reliable means of feeding and clothing children.
If children’s centres are to succeed in reaching the most disadvantaged families then the capacity to genuinely listen to what they want and need is essential.
Some of that is already evident in existing social networks. The temptation is to believe that disadvantaged communities are devoid of social networks and lacking in solidarity or capacity, but that is often not the case. In most such communities, playgroups, toy libraries, community mothers and other mutual support groups, run by parents, provide what people want and, through their longevity, have earned the trust of local families. Lacking resources, perhaps, they offer a model of mutual self-help which could be usefully drawn into statutory services.
Poverty is created, in the main, by worklessness. Bearing this in mind, a real transfer of assets to poor communities could be reflected not just in the provision of baby clinics, nurseries and parent forums, but by creating real jobs for parents within those services, as a few Sure Start programmes have done with some success. Taking advantage of benefit disregards to pay parents a part-wage, together with entry level training programmes, could provide the bridge that most poor parents say they want, to a better life for their children.
In some areas, being poor is so long-standing as to be indivisible from personal and community identity. Accepting this, a surer start for children, must be based less on the model of intervention and more on giving those most affected a voice and role of their own.