Martin Narey: Start now by providing good schools and reducing poverty

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The Independent Online

Britain is a society of persistent inequality. The life-chances of children remain heavily dependent on the circumstances of their birth. Those born to poorer families have less favourable outcomes across every sphere of life.

The present government came into office with a commitment to tackle this social exclusion and it needs to be acknowledged that many of the policies implemented since 1998 have contributed to positive change. A recent analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation considered the Government's record and what stands out is that, after an initial period of success, improvement in many areas has slowed down or remained unchanged and some indicators have worsened.

The White Paper takes a long-term view. But the Government needs to do two things now. First, the most disadvantaged children need to get to the best and not – as is invariably the case now – the worst schools. Even when high performing schools are located in poorer areas they tend to take in relatively few children from low income homes. There is a strong case for direct admissions policies, reducing the importance of catchment areas and giving children an equal chance to get to the sort of schools which might change their lives.

The second urgent requirement is to do more to reduce child poverty. The children and young people most likely to experience inequalities have one core thing in common: poverty. The Government's intention to give legislative backing to its 2020 target to eradicate child poverty conceals the imminent failure of the more urgent commitment to halve child poverty by 2010. What would have been Labour's greatest achievement in government, and which was within its grasp, is now slipping away. The consequences for social mobility are profound.

Martin Narey is chief executive of Barnardo's and chaired the Social Mobility Commission set up by the Liberal Democrats

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