Asked recently by a left-wing think tank to propose my priorities for the next Prime Minister, I had a single answer: he should tackle poverty and inequality. From that, everything else follows. The one thing we know for certain in social science is that, if you come from a poor family, you are more likely to commit crime, take drugs, die young and underachieve at school. This is one of the few instances where social scientists can state laws with almost as much confidence as physicists.
Yet ministers don't like the idea of just giving poor people money. They persist in treating Britain as a social laboratory in which, if they start enough initiatives and commission enough research, they might find novel ways of curing social problems.
Each month, the Department for Education posts a dozen or more research reports on its website. Many concern projects I didn't know existed. The latest batch include evaluations of the anti-bullying alliance, the early years sector-endorsed foundation degree, the two-year key stage 3 project, and the neighbourhood nurseries initiative. No doubt these are admirable projects, and it is even more admirable that the department evaluates them so conscientiously. But what, after all the social scientists' labours, do we learn?
Take the nurseries project, which was specifically designed to tackle child poverty by giving toddlers a better start in life and their parents more opportunities to work. The evaluation results caused rumbles in the newspapers, particularly The Guardian and the Daily Mail, just before Easter. If children under three-and-a-half spent more than 35 hours a week in childcare, it was reported, they were more likely to show anti-social behaviour. This echoed findings from the US, which suggested that infants who had been to childcare centres showed "somewhat more problem behaviours"
at age 11.
Does this mean early childcare is the wrong way to tackle disadvantage? Well, no and yes, I'd say. No, because both studies showed positives as well as negatives for the children. In the DfES project, children, though more worried, upset and anti-social, were also more confident and sociable.
Well-qualified nursery staff and a proper structure to the day had a particularly positive effect.
The US research found that good quality childcare led to improved vocabulary scores at 11. There is also the evidence from Sweden and Denmark, where childcare is far more comprehensive and high quality than it is here with, it seems, almost wholly positive effects.
But if we're expecting childcare to abolish poverty, we'll be disappointed.
I'd guess it suits some children and parents, but not all. It may, perhaps, work better in Scandinavia than in Britain, where nurseries are subsumed into the academic hurdle race we impose on our children almost as soon as they exit the womb.
Like many things in life, childcare has upsides and downsides. But no research I am aware of has found an upside to poverty. Let politicians tackle it directly, with higher benefits and wages, instead of trying to micromanage the lives of poor families and their children.