Tackling Child Poverty and School Performance

John Osmond finds a new determination amongst Welsh Ministers to tackle a blight on Welsh society

A milestone will be reached this coming Thursday if, as expected, the Welsh Government’s Children and Families Measure finally reaches the statute book. This contains a raft of proposals but among them is a far reaching legal requirement for all public bodies in Wales to specify how their expenditure and actions will work to reduce child poverty.

This means that every local authority, health authority and public bodies ranging from the Countryside Council for Wales to National Museum Wales and the National Library will have to provide evidence in their annual reports to the Welsh Government how their policies and budgets are having an impact.

As the Minister for Children Huw Lewis put it, at a conference organised by the Wales Women’s National Coalition in Llandudno Junction at the end of last week, “We will have a legal requirement for the whole of the public sector in Wales to put children in poverty at the head of the queue.

“There are going to be interesting times ahead  in how this will be interpreted. But I shall be looking to see evidence of changes of resource allocation in response to this legislation.”

Child poverty is climbing higher in the Welsh political agenda with the release of a Save the Children report earlier this month showing that Wales is the worst performing part of the UK. The report, Measuring Severe Child Poverty in the UK, revealed that 15 per cent (or 96,000) Welsh children are living in severe poverty in Wales, compared with just 9 per cent in Scotland, 10 per cent in Northern Ireland and 13 per cent in England.

Commenting on the report Huw Lewis said progress on tackling child poverty has stalled in every part of the UK apart from Scotland and acknowledged that we have to do more in Wales. “What we have been doing has not been as vigorous or as comprehensive as it might have been,” he said. “We need a more integrated and wrapped around approach in which particular families are targeted.

“We need to have a clearer focus on extricating families from poverty rather a more generalised ameliorating approach.”

He said the Welsh Government has just 18 months before the May 2011 election to demonstrate that it was getting a firmer grip on the issue. “You can take it that my appointment as Minister for Children is a signal from the First Minister that this is being taken very seriously. I have a roaming brief across government and we will be seeking a co-ordinated approach.”

Huw Lewis will be launching the Welsh Government’s new Child Poverty Strategy in early March. It is likely that this will concentrate on actions that schools and local authorities can take in working closely with problem families in an effort to drive up the school performance of disadvantaged children.

A number of recent reports have already drawn attention to examples of good practice, including Estyn’s Tackling child poverty and disadvantage in schools, published in January, and a Department of Social Justice report, Tackling Child Poverty: Guidance for Communities First Partnerships, published last October. The challenge is to roll out the relatively isolated examples of good practice highlighted in these reports more widely across Wales. A problem with many schools is that their major focus is on getting good examination results among better performing pupils, leaving the bottom 10 to 20 per cent to languish. However, as the Estyn report underlines, improving the education attainment of the lesser performing and generally more disadvantaged children has the impact of improving the whole of a school’s performance.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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