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New opportunity for communities

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Depending on your newspaper, the New Opportunities white paper is either a step towards levelling the playing field of life chances or a declaration of war on the middle class.

Either way there isn’t much in the 108-page document on social mobility that doesn’t have direct implications for councils.

From£10,000 ‘golden handcuffs’ to attract the best teachers to troubled schools, to expanding nursery provision for the most-disadvantaged two-year-olds, to a new programme to regenerate deprived estates from the inside out, the white paper fires initiatives old, new, and amended to aid its cause.

Mentors will help talented children from families with no history of university education make sure they understand the potential they could reach.

Meanwhile, parents and carers will get extra help in returning to work. Those in work but looking to further advance themselves, will apparently see the government “radically extend financial support” for retraining.

Core function

There is also a threat that the government “will consider legislating to make clear that tackling socio-economic disadvantage and narrowing gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds is a core function of key public services”.

At a time of steadily climbing unemployment and increasing financial difficulties, the white paper repeatedly pins the nation’s long-term economic hopes on the predicted surge in demand for British goods and services from Asia over the next 20 years.

It is no small irony that a boom in opportunities for serving the consumption needs of burgeoning middle classes (China and India) is seen as an opportunity to end class inequalities in this country.

But while the dozens of proposals included in the white paper refer to previous successes, questions remain about how much councils can really do to drive change in their communities.

The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) North has launched a commission aimed at discovering why public services in the north-east achieve high performance scores - 10 councils boast four-star comprehensive performance assessment ratings - yet the region still lags behind in key outcomes such as life expectancy and exam results.

Autonomy

One line of inquiry is whether councils have enough autonomy to develop locally rooted policies to properly address the issues communities face.

Northamptonshire County Council chief executive Katherine Kerswell believes the white paper marks a positive step in bringing together existing projects aimed to boost social mobility as well as signalling next moves.

She does not see local government’s role as peripheral and is the sector’s representative on a 16-member panel set up as part of the white paper that aims to ensure people from different backgrounds have better access to careers in the professions.

Ms Kerswell said that this is an area where local government has a track record of best practice to share, and a clear ability to directly help residents achieve their potential.

“Northamptonshire County Council employs around 16,000 people, and we’re probably the biggest employer in the county, if health hasn’t beaten us to that title,” she said.

“So we’re in a position where we can set the standard by creating routes and ladders, and by targeting sectors of the community who are under-represented.”

Fairness and diversity

Ms Kerswell said that while many senior roles had to be considered as national-level vacancies, there was huge scope for promoting fairness and diversity locally.

She also said that she anticipated that the legislation hinted at by the government would probably mirror race-equality laws and call for a duty to challenge and ensure that discrimination was not taking place. But Ms Kerswell questioned how it could be applied.

“The objective is fairly simple to define, but in reality would it be specific to particular communities or estates?” she asked.

“I don’t think it would be a very big departure from our current local area agreement work if it was more generally about tackling worklessness or obesity.”

Prescriptive

Kate Lawton, researcher at the IPPR, agreed that legislation on social mobility could be too prescriptive and difficult to apply.

“It’s not exactly clear what they expect local government to be doing that it’s not doing at the moment,” she said of the white paper.

“While there are few new things, it’s good to see everything brought together as an across the board picture.”

She said that promoting work was the real key to driving social mobility in some communities, but that it was a particularly difficult task and one that the government could have addressed more boldly.

The white paper is heavily weighted towards ensuring children have the best possible start in life, and that their backgrounds do not act as a barrier to achieving their full potential.

A key strand of this work is reducing the nation’s child poverty levels.

Poverty

Tim Nichols, spokesman for the Child Poverty Action Group , said that only central government had the wherewithal to rapidly alter the situation of the poorest families.

His organisation calculates it would require an immediate£3bn package of benefit increases and Working Families Tax Credit extensions to meet next year’s target of halving child poverty.

But he said that there were still many areas where councils could focus a huge amount of effort - including ensuring key services were accessible for the poorest families.

He added that authorities should be considering cross-cutting policies to ensure families on low incomes were not excluded from council-provided services on the grounds of cost.

Mr Nichols said a place at a well-performing school and mentoring would not remove many of the problems associated with poverty.

Quality of life

“It’s not enough just to look at the quality of the schools and teachers, you have also got to look at the quality of life for children - including the buildings where they live, and the neighbourhoods those buildings are in,” he said.

Martin Rogers, policy consultant at of the Local Government Information Unit’s Children’s Services Network, said that the packages of pre-school measures aimed at increasing the education level of staff and expanding the number of SureStart places available were useful steps.

But he said there was evidence that not enough of the parents and children such centres were chiefly aimed at were using the services.

“Clearly there needs to be more outreach work being done because the groups that don’t use children’s centres are often the most deprived,” he said. “It seems imperative to do more to find the people who are not coming forward themselves.”

Mr Rogers added that school admissions policies were another key area where local inequalities could be rebalanced. But he said it remained to be seen how bold authorities would be in terms of introducing lottery systems and other ways to loosen the connection between the neighbourhood in which children lived and the state school they attended.

Admissions

“The government has done all it can with the [national] admissions code,” he said. “The key thing is whether people now move in that direction.”

Despite widespread agreement that the government’s proposals should help improve education and life opportunities for people from less privileged backgrounds, one local government source pointed out that skills, training and aspiration were only half of the equation.

He questioned how effective any government can be in countering the traditional social and family connections that have been crucial for getting middle class people the jobs they have previously secured, and will want to secure in the future.

Somehow, John Prescott’s assertion that “we’re all middle class now” seems even less plausible than it was when he first said it in 1997.

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