Three hearty cheers for Louise Casey.
Her report published last week dealing, euphemistically, with troubled families, will be seen in history as a milestone in reforming our client-based welfare state.
Casey was no doubt critical of the term of references she was given, although she’s politically skilled enough not to say so. This constraint may well have prevented her from being as radical as she may have liked.
I would not do the job of a social worker for all the tea in China. And, to be truthful, even if a monopoly on all the tea trade was attractive to me, I simply do not believe I have the skills to develop social work skills.
The changing role of social workers in the welfare state is a topic to which I will return later. Even so, what Casey proposes is sensible. While the buck should stop with a single worker, that worker must be given the authority to sort things out with the chaotic family to whom they have been given charge.
My only reservation with Casey’s report, and it is a small reservation because so much good will come from its implementation, is whether it goes far enough. The chaotic family will benefit from her approach and, more importantly, so will the immediate local community in which the neighbours from hell are living – although most decent families will not be able to match the word living with what they are forced to witness.
Had the prime minister read the report I submitted to him a year ago last Christmas he would have been very careful in setting the terms of reference for Casey’s work. The report, The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults, using the very best and most up-to-date research, demonstrated that life chances are determined for most children, possibly by the age of two and half to three, and certainly by the age of five.
In the absence of prime-ministerial drive, what a small group of activists are trying to achieve in Birkenhead could become important for policy across the country. We are trying to put the Foundation Years report into practice.
First, we are planning that all secondary schools in Birkenhead will see parenting given a strong focus in their school curriculum. One example here concerns the material on brain development, how 80 per cent of its weight is developed over the first two years of a baby’s life, and how a parents’ nurturing of their child will largely determine its life chances.
Second, we plan to establish a free school (the only source of new money) to work with the most vulnerable mums and dads from the twelfth week of pregnancy.
We talked with Casey about our work and she is fully supportive. Our aim is to ensure that each year more children – rather than fewer, as at present – are ready for school.
I hope the government will back our Foundation Years Trust in its own right, for success here will lead, I believe, to a revolution in how we organise all our early years work. But I also hope they will see it as a handmaiden to the programme that Casey is proposing.
Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead and former minister for welfare reform
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