The ethics of giving the same benefits to all

Diane Hofkins

How do you make sure that pupils thrive, whatever their background?

Progressive universalism. It sounds like a phrase from The Communist Manifesto. Or from a cult promising to bring peace to the world and to your inner self. Or could it be from the Labour party manifesto?

Not quite, but it's the closest guess. The term is being bandied about in official circles to describe how the children's agenda should progress. You start by targeting those who need help the most, and then fan the policy out gradually to everyone. That's what's happening with Sure Start children's centres, to mixed reviews. And it demonstrates one of the biggest dilemmas faced by our class-ridden society. Do we give the same to everyone, no matter what their starting point? Will this lead to greater equality, or will it give those who are already ahead in the race an ongoing advantage? Can we afford to offer everyone the same services? They do it in Scandinavia, but the difference between rich and poor is minimal compared to the UK, and people expect to pay very high tax. We do it with school-age education, and there is no question that this has increased equality since Victorian times, when universal schooling was introduced, but can we put our hands on our hearts and say the average child from a council estate has the same chances as one from a middle-class home?

A seminar attempting to chart a vision for childhood in the 21st century, organised by Early Education and chaired by London schools adviser Tim Brighouse, asked these questions - and although passions ran high on both sides - it did find some answers. For instance, the Effective Pre-School and Primary Education (EPPE) research on early childhood education, a longitudinal study commissioned by the Government, shows that high-quality pre-school provision makes a difference to the achievements of disadvantaged children straight through key stage 1 and beyond. It defines what quality is, too. Every centre needs to be led by a teacher trained to graduate level, with a solid understanding of child development. There should be one such teacher for every four childcare workers and 48 children. It also shows that children from poorer socio-economic classes do better when they attend children's centres with youngsters from a variety of backgrounds.

But many key issues remain, and were highlighted by the group of early childhood boffins from government agencies, children's centres and consultancies:

* How do we ensure that the emphasis is on education rather than schooling? What do children need in order to thrive?

* How do we make sure teachers and other practitioners really know their community?

* How can stubbornly disadvantaged areas be helped to raise their game?

* How do we ensure politicians from the Department of Health work with education ministers on this agenda, when they do not even have the same targets?

Children's agenda 29

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Diane Hofkins

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