education and life chances, writes Margaret Lochrie
As children settle into the new autumn term, their thoughts are unlikely to turn towards politicians, also coming back to their desks after the long summer recess. Yet as party conferences dissolve into the pages of draft manifestos, the relationship of children to society at large and their place in public services might provide the defining territory for the next election.
Children, together with old people and the sick, are the key beneficiaries of the welfare state and for many, provide almost the whole purpose of our education system.
But 60 years after the post-war settlement which established free secondary education, the National Health Service, and set the framework for children's welfare services, too many children are let down or failed by their environments, through poverty, ill-health, neglect and educational disadvantage.
It is in its commitment to eliminate child poverty that the achievement of New Labour can be measured. During the Thatcher years, the numbers of children living in poverty quadrupled and initiatives like Sure Start, together with tax and benefit changes, provide evidence of the clear water between the Government's zero tolerance stance and previous administrations.
However, with 3.8 million children still living in poverty, the aim of social justice cannot be achieved. Even if the Government hits its target to reduce the number of children in low-income households by 2005, the UK will still have one of the highest rates of child poverty in Europe.
Poverty is a pervasive experience compromising health and well-being, education and future life chances. It is also a social relationship, framed not just by lack of money but by stigma and the feeling of being separate and apart. For some children it has catastrophic consequences, perhaps being "in care" or drug addiction or even suicide.
So what would a progressive policy for children look like? It might, firstly, abandon terms like "child-centred", a construct which separates children from the important contexts of their lives. Children are not poor in themselves. They derive the status of poverty from their parents and - for many of them - the defeating culture of poverty integral to the communities in which they live.
Research has proved that the family, rather than the school, is the main influence on child development, with home support for personal aspiration being top among the factors which influence achievement. It is the understanding of this which has created local Sure Start programmes which engage parents in playing with and reading to their children and in committing to education and training themselves.
How can parents transmit faith in the future to their children unless they feel it themselves? The Department of Health estimated in 2002 that four out of 11 children in England are at risk of missing normal developmental goals because of stresses in the family related to parental mental illness, domestic violence, alcohol, drugs or stress related to economic and social conditions. Parental involvement in schools is negatively affected by the same factors, with many parents becoming fatalistic about their children's schooling.
The Department for Education and Skills' five-year plan suggests that a main driver for school improvement must continue to be increased operational freedom for schools and more choice for parents. Yet, the operation of schools in the market place and the positioning of education as a consumer choice is likely, systematically, to disadvantage those who are already least advantaged in a consumer society.
A preferable model is found in the principles of Every Child Matters, including the concept of the extended, full-service school with health and welfare services, childcare and family learning on site. Whole-school engagement with economic regeneration and connectivity to the community also form part of this potentially transforming agenda.
Within the five-year plan is an aspiration, over the longer term, to establish an extended school in every community, but with no specified timescale. The resourcing of this should be a priority.
As important is the need for even greater investment in the early years.
From as early as 22 months, the achievement of children from poorer families starts to follow a divergent path, making the first years of life a critical period for child policy. Nearly half of the poorest families in England live outside the most commonly targeted areas for Sure Start.
At 12.5 hours per week, the UK still has one of the lowest levels of publicly-funded childcare among European countries. Spending plans so far only include children's centres in targeted wards, although childcare is recognised as essential for parents to work and as a hub for family support and regeneration. The regional variations in the distribution of childcare mean that the best-performing local authorities offer six times as many childcare places as the lowest.
Childcare and health and welfare services are part of a span of policies to combat poverty and increase social inclusion. In reality, inclusion is built on stable and universal services, visible to and valued by all and available when needed. Public policy must grasp this, for children deserve no less.
Margaret Lochrie is director of Capacity, a new public interest body for children's services, helping to deliver fresh policy perspectives and change