Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Improving Children’s Life Chances

Britain’s children pay a heavy price for Labour’s fall from power. ‘Improving Children’s Life Chances’, a new book from Child Poverty Action Group, sets out the scale of the crisis, and some policy solutions.

We Brits have a terrible record in our treatment of children. Our infant mortality rate is 21st out of a list of 26 developed countries, on child poverty we rank 14th out of 29 developed countries, and in child happiness or well-being, Unicef puts us bottom of the developed world.

It was one of the great achievements of Labour in government that we managed to reduce child poverty and introduce children’s services of the scale and quality needed to narrow the gap between rich and poor.

The recent reversal of this progress is the saddest result of our defeat. The measure of it is set out in CPAG’s book. A decline in delivery on 13 indicators of childhood well-being. A fourfold worsening of the record achieved during the Labour years.

The central thesis of the CPAG book is that the goal of children’s policy should be to improve children’s life chances, enhancing childhood as well as making it a pathway to successful adulthood.

Introducing the argument, Alison Garnham, CPAG chief executive writes: ‘The conception of life chances … attempts to track the conditions necessary for an improvement in child outcomes. The broader perspective we are urging that encompasses child well-being and not just well-becoming makes it essential to include income, child poverty and other structural determinants of children’s life chances.’

Key to a strategy for improving children’s life chances is tackling child poverty by ensuring families have adequate incomes and reducing the costs they incur. It also identifies six other key policy areas:

  • High quality early years education and care for all children
  • Better housing and living environments
  • Support for families
  • An education system that works for all children
  • Support for young adults and transition to adulthood
  • Effective services for children’s health and well being


Contributions from experts in their respective fields set out evidence-based policies for each area, with key performance indicators for monitoring delivery.

There is some good challenging of myths. Eva Lloyd, of the University of East London, weighs in against the targeting of services. She makes an effective case in her discussion of early years services for ‘proportionate universalism,’ with universal services provided to a scale and intensity matching the level of disadvantage of the child.

Octavia Holland, director of the Communication Trust, takes apart the simplistic approach of the Centre for Social Justice to family breakdown. She provides some important reflections on the impact of conflict on lone parents, especially relevant to current concerns over violence against women.

Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, sets out the failure of employment to break the cycle of poverty, with the United Kingdom having one of the highest levels of low pay in the developed world. ‘Poverty has become the preserve of working people, rather than just the workless or workshy.’ Yet, as Alan says, ‘Public policy … is still working on the old assumption that a tide of economic growth will cause all boats to rise.’

However, the book’s sometimes tortuous focus on constructing the case for improving life chances, weakens the more trenchant arguments it makes on child poverty. What happens to children in the world’s fifth richest country is a scandal. Granted the remedies will not be simple: if there had been a magic wand it would have been waved sometime between 1997 and 2010.

But recommending the present government measure 67 key performance indicators on cutting child poverty is unlikely to cut much ice. This is the Conservative government whose understanding of transforming the education service is to reintroduce grammar schools and which thinks providing effective healthcare is to cut services ‘like they do in the Home Office.’

Dan Jarvis has committed to bringing in a private member’s bill to tackle child poverty. That could be a welcome first salvo in a new Labour battle to improve the position of Britain’s children.


Sally Keeble is a former minister and former member of the Treasury select committee. She tweets @Sally_Keeble


Improving Children’s Life Chances
Child Poverty Action Group | 144pp | Published: Child Poverty Action Group



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Sally Keeble

is a former minister and former member of the Treasury select committee. She tweets @Sally_Keeble

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