No pre-school, no child benefit, Tory thinktank says in report on poverty

Bright Blue, a liberal Conservative pressure group, argues poverty can be cut if parents send their children to pre-school education centres

Parents should be denied child benefit if they do not send their children to pre-school education from the age of three, according to an increasingly influential Conservative pressure group.

The penalty should apply to a parent in the case of a child aged two if the toddler comes from a disadvantaged background, the new counter-poverty strategy suggests.

The proposed loss of child benefit is set out in a pamphlet by Bright Blue, a liberal Conservative pressure group and thinktank, and is designed to ensure disadvantaged children receive pre-school education to make them ready for school.

Bright Blue says it is essential to seek new ways to persuade parents to send their children to pre-school education.

It argues that just as the government is planning to withdraw child benefit from parents of truanting children, so the same disincentives should apply to parents that do not take up the opportunity of free pre-school education. Ministers have said they are doubling the amount of free pre-school childcare or education to 30 hours a week.

The proposal is bound to be attacked by Labour as another assault on the poor and comes in the wake of controversy over the loss of tax credits. A survey last year by a children’s charity found that many Sure Start centre face closure because of budget cuts with £830m less being spent on them in the three years from 2011-12.

Ministers want to expand the range of targets for ending child poverty to include the readiness for school of poorer children.

The work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, in the welfare bill is replacing the income-based target for child poverty with two new targets. The first is based on the number of disadvantaged children being raised in workless households and the second is the educational attainment of disadvantaged children aged 16 compared with other children.

In his speech to the Tory party conference in Manchester, David Cameron promised “an all-out war on poverty” but said it would no longer be driven by small cash transfers by the state to poorer families, but instead by tackling what the party manifesto referred to as “the root causes of poverty: entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency”.

But Conservative policymakers acknowledge that since worklessness is in sharp decline, and many life opportunities are settled very early in a child’s life, the government should be looking at an additional anti-poverty target covering a child’s readiness for school at the age of five.

Ministers may yet table amendments to the welfare bill, currently in the Commons, to incorporate school-readiness targets.

Bright Blue’s director, Ryan Shorthouse, insists the measure should not be seen as punitive or designed to be critical of stay-at-home parents, but should instead be regarded as a pro-education measure.

Ryan Shorthouse, director of Bright Blue.
Ryan Shorthouse, director of Bright Blue. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

He says the idea draws on new empirical evidence that having diverse social networks – in terms of ethnicity and social grade – can mitigate poverty.

The pressure group argues that the evidence for the benefit of pre-school care is so strong that formal education should not be compulsory from the age of five but much earlier.

The report says: “We need 100% take-up of the early years free entitlement to ensure children – and also parents – benefit, not only from good-quality care but also the diverse networks they are likely to cultivate by attending these institutions.”Shorthouse said: “Reducing poverty is not just about people having more money, important as that is. There is now evidence, which shows that having strong and diverse relationships is associated with a reduced likelihood of being in poverty.

“Universal public services such as children’s centres and nurseries are key institutions where people from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds can forge relationships with one another.

“But the poorest adults and children, including those from ethnic minority backgrounds, are often the least likely to participate in these institutions.”

The report also calls for all Sure Start children’s centres to provide registration of births and English classes.

Ofsted inspections of Sure Start children’s centres, nurseries and primary schools should take into account whether the social composition of their governing bodies or advisory boards reflects that of local communities.

No Sure Start centre should be given outstanding status if it does not have a diverse governing body, it says.

Individual Sure Start centres should collect standardised, socio-demographic data on participating families and receive a financial reward for increasing participation by disadvantaged people from ethnic-minority backgrounds – and a financial penalty for failing to do so.

  • This article was amended on 19 October 2015. An earlier version implied Bright Blue was suggesting receipt of Child Benefit should be linked to attendance at a Sure Start centre. It was suggesting that the receipt of the benefit should be linked to attendance of pre-school education as delivered by the early years free entitlement.

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Patrick Wintour Political editor

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