Can we put the ‘poverty of aspiration’ myth to bed now?

Children’s less successful progress in education is often blamed on their, and/or their parents’, poor aspirations. This has become known as the ‘poverty of aspiration’. Aspirations have become a key educational policy driver in Scotland and the rest of the UK and are seen as critical levers for closing the attainment gap between children and young people of high and low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Yet children living in poverty do have high aspirations for themselves. Children and young people do not start off with low expectations. When they are younger they have the same hopes and dreams as all children, however, their confidence in their ability to attain their aspirations becomes diminished over time. Aspirations, even in communities struggling with poverty, are very high—the missing element is the knowledge of how to make these aspirations real and obtainable.

Parents living in poverty also have high aspirations for their children but feel unable to engage with their child’s learning in the home and feel inadequate in their knowledge and experience to help their children. There is no crisis in aspirations but rather difficulty for poor parents ‘to sustain those aspirations over time or turn them into reality‘. Yet, it is not only politicians that charges parents with having low aspirations for their children. Teachers too cite low aspirations on the part of parents for children’s poorer educational attainment. This has an effect on how teachers and school staff engage with children and parents living in poverty.

The analysis in my recently published briefing paper ‘Can we put the poverty of aspirations myth to bed now?‘ finds that parents living in poverty do not lack aspirations for their children but their aspirations are a construct of what is familiar and known to them. Each of us is a creation of our past and present experiences as well as our acquired skills, knowledge and education. Those of us with no experience of sailing in the Mediterranean do not aspire to yacht ownership on the Côte d’Azur. This does not make us deficient in aspiration; rather, we aspire to what we have experience of, what we know we can influence, and what we believe we can achieve. While the poverty of aspiration myth is allowed to perpetuate, even gain in momentum, it will continue to distract from the ways in which children living in poverty are failed by the education system.







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Why we need to use data to progress children’s rights in Scotland

When it comes to children’s rights, it is often the qualitative aspects of children’s lives that we think about. How far children are free to have and to enjoy their rights is something we tend to measure in terms of stories and narratives, preferably told by children themselves. For many, there is the belief, or perhaps the concern, that these qualitative aspects of life cannot be quantified, cannot be translated into, or represented by, statistical forms of data. I would argue that such people are probably correct insofar as how they understand and interpret what is trying to be measured. A statistical indicator cannot hope to encapsulate the breadth and depth of qualitative experience, or of thoughts and feelings. However, I would argue that a statistical indicator can complement qualitative information, that it can highlight qualitative information, that it can extend qualitative information by asking such questions as ‘how many?’, ‘how often?’ and ‘to what extent?’.

Indicators can give a representative and generalisable overview, a robust and valid account, a reliable explanation, and can help, perhaps, direct problems towards solutions.  I would argue that we need indicators to track change and improvement in the implementation, realisation and enjoyment of rights for children. We need these especially to monitor the rights of those groups that face more challenging circumstances and discrimination. Indicators also allow us to assess and support the efforts of public bodies and civil society to implement children’s rights and meet their rights obligations. It is important to understand that collecting qualitative and quantitative data needn’t be an either/or, it can be a ‘let’s have both!’ When used in combination, quantitative and qualitative data can reveal a wider, deeper, more nuanced picture than they can individually.

In today’s seminar, I show the analysis of some data. I present a table from the child-completed section of the Growing Up in Scotland survey data from sweep 7 in 2012 when 94% of the children were 7 years old and 6% were 8 years old. The question asks children to respond to the following statement ‘My parents smack me when I have done something wrong’ and gives the following four possible responses: 1) Never, 2) Sometimes, 3) Often, and 4) Always. Additionally, the gender variable (girl/boy) is used as is the binary poverty measure of being below 60% median equivalised income (poverty/no poverty). Any number of socioeconomic variables could have been used, such as education or social class, poverty was chosen for the simplicity of the two categories.

This question is very timely in Scotland. A new consultation has been announced on a proposed Bill on equal protection from assault for children and young people. The Bill aims to remove the legal defence of “justifiable assault” for the smacking of children, bringing Scotland in line with UNCRC recommendations and with most other European countries[1]. To shed light on this issue, and to show what we can learn if we collect the right data, the table below gives percentages of children aged 7/8 years old who report being ‘smacked’ by their parents, broken down by gender and poverty:

My parents smack me when I have done something wrong Boys Girls
No poverty Poverty No poverty Poverty
Never 45.7 41.8 49.5 41.1
Sometimes 33.5 33.1 37.3 37.7
Often 9.0 9.7 6.2 8.5
Always 11.8 15.4 7.2 12.7

Source: Growing Up in Scotland (2012 – sweep 7, n= 3,353)

The most striking point of note to me is that over half of all children report being smacked. This is in a climate where smacking is reported to have decreased in prevalence. Both the gender element and the poverty element are statistically significant (analyses not shown) meaning that boys are smacked more than girls and poorer boys and girls are smacked more than wealthier girls, especially. Wealthier boys, however, are still smacked ‘always’ at 1.6 the rate of wealthier girls. I don’t think this is acceptable and I hope to show today that this indicator complements the known qualitative data on how children feel when they are smacked.


[1] (accessed 31 May 2017)

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Consultation response to the Scottish Government’s Child Poverty Bill for Scotland consultation

Overall statement:

I welcome the Scottish Government’s stated commitment to tackling child poverty and appreciate the attention to the existing evidence base that this consultation shows. The principal reason that any government is concerned to tackle child poverty is because of its negative effects on children’s future outcomes, e.g. cognitive development, psychosocial well-being, educational attainment, physical and mental health, completed schooling, future employment prospects and earning power, to name but a few. It is heartening to see that the impact of living in poverty in childhood itself is also considered in this consultation. The evidence shows that income is the dimension of poverty that has the most significant, adverse impact on children’s outcomes. Therefore, having income as the primary focus of this proposed new Child Poverty Bill for Scotland is very welcome.

However, my concern arises when the Scottish Government itself notes that ‘tackling child poverty is increasingly difficult in the face of UK Government welfare cuts and austerity measures’; ‘we do not hold many of the necessary levers for change under the current constitutional settlement’ and ‘Legislation cannot achieve all of this alone’. While I appreciate that due to these constraints the Scottish Government only has an ‘ambition’ to eradicate child poverty, I feel that setting highly ambitious targets (possibly using the after housing costs measure, within a tight timeframe) while acknowledging that you do not possess the full powers to achieve these targets, and so tempering the wording of the bill with words such as ‘ambition’ and ‘strive to’, has a potential to leave us with a less effective piece of legislation. My fear is that setting highly ambitious targets and only striving to achieve them, will result in a good-looking piece of legislation that cannot achieve its ambition. In other words, it will be all fur coat and no knickers, to coin a common Scottish expression.

I recommend that you should relax the timeframe for the Child Poverty Bill for Scotland, set interim targets, use before and after housing costs measures, include new income measures (see question 5), get rid of some of the so-called measures in the measurement framework and replace them with more rigorous data (see question 10). Most importantly, you should strengthen its language so that the bill has a stronger statement of intent. In conclusion, there is a risk of setting overly ambitious targets that are unachievable but there will be no accountability because there is not a stated strong intention to eradicate child poverty, only an ambition to.


Do you agree with the Scottish Government including in statute an ambition to eradicate child poverty?

I agree with the Scottish Government including in statute a plan, strategy, or programme to eradicate child poverty. I am concerned with the language used in this consultation. The word ‘ambition’ is used throughout as are the words ‘strive to eradicate’. I believe that the words ‘ambition’ and ‘strive’ are vague, indefinite and do not result in any statutory obligation to eradicate child poverty. Using words such as these could mean that the government had succeeded in its ambition to strive to eradicate child poverty even if there was little material change in the incidence and prevalence of child poverty. Logically, the government could not fail to succeed in having an ambition, or in striving, so long as it could demonstrate its efforts. I would like to see a stronger statement of intent.


What are your views on making income targets statutory?

The current child poverty measure of income that the Scottish Government aims to keep, combining both 60% median equivalised income and material deprivation (a multidimensional concept), was reached after a period of extensive consultation using research evidence. Not only has the 60% median equivalised income measure succeeded in capturing the effects of complex economic situations, it is also the official child poverty measure of the EU, OECD and UNICEF, and is now used by other governments. I think it is important to keep this measure and to make income targets statutory. If we were to lose this, we would lose not only a rigorous, well tested and evidence-based measure of child poverty, we would lose the ability to compare ourselves against other nations within the UK, EU and OECD.


How do you think the role of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Child Poverty can be developed to ensure that they play a key role in developing the legislation?

I think the Ministerial Advisory Group on Child Poverty should contain more academic expertise in the field of child poverty. Academics currently working in the field of child poverty would bring an overview of the research evidence and a comparative overview of the situation in other countries.


How can links between the national strategy and local implementation be improved? What could local partners do to contribute to meeting these national goals? This might include reporting and sharing best practice or developing new strategic approaches.

I am mindful of placing any further administrative and reporting burdens on local authorities, particularly if it does not come with ring-fenced funding attached; however, I think this should be a statutory requirement on local authorities to take steps to prevent and reduce child poverty at the local level. Any additional statutory requirement on local authorities should work within the existing legislation of the Community Empowerment Act, the Education (Scotland) Act and the Children and Young People Act to minimise any additional reporting burden.

There is much good work happening at the local level, on a piecemeal basis, with each local body undertaking a range of innovative and successful initiatives to support families living in poverty. My concern is that, due to understandable resource constraints on local authorities, the learning is not being sufficiently shared, or centrally supported, to ensure that all families in Scotland have access to the same level of services to reduce and mitigate, eradicate and prevent child poverty. There are some excellent services around income maximisation, in particular the Healthier Wealthier Children initiative in Glasgow for new parents that I wrote about in relation to child well-being (, that should be rolled out across Scotland with support from the Scottish Government.

There are excellent initiatives being implemented to ‘poverty proof’ the school day, particularly in Glasgow (Cost of the School Day) and Edinburgh (1 in 5 project) – and I’m fortunate enough to work in both of these. A recent film using the Glasgow research by the EIS may be of value to the consultation ( It is my view that poverty proofing in schools should be rolled out across Scotland.

There are other initiatives operating in isolation in different local authorities that should be shared, to benefit children across Scotland. To do this, it would be most practical and cost-effective to have a central group within the Scottish Government, whose responsibility it is to collate and evaluate these initiatives, and to create resources for all of the authorities to enable them to implement the same initiatives. There is much time, effort, and money used (and arguably wasted) by each of the 32 local authorities trying their hardest to develop new initiatives to help local families. This could and should be centrally supported so that: (1) the people of Scotland have the same access to support in the face of child poverty no matter where they live in Scotland; and (2) economies of scale are made.


What are your views on the income-based measures of poverty proposed for Scottish child poverty targets? For example, are there any additional income-based measures you think we should also use (and if so, why)? Are there any alternative approaches to measuring income – for example, as used in other countries – that you think could apply in Scotland?

The government’s focus on income is welcome. While other aspects of income would be a welcome addition, and give a plurality to the measure of income poverty, any new aspects should not replace the current one. The government should continue to measure income as it is currently, that is:

  • absolute low income – measured at 60% of median average income for 1998/99 to measure any increase in the incomes of the poorest families in real terms against a fixed point;
  • relative low income – measured at 60% of contemporary equivalised median income, to measure any increase in the incomes of the poorest families against general rises in incomes in the population as a whole;
  • material deprivation and low income combined – measured at 70% of contemporary equivalised median income and including a measure of lack of material necessities, to compare living standards and material deprivation more broadly; and
  • persistent poverty – measured at less than 60% of median equivalised household income for at least 3 out of the previous 4 years.

These measures provide a quantifiable, comparable threshold against which to measure progress. They also allow for cross-country comparison. Any new measure should be in addition to these current measures.

There is one new measure that would make a welcome addition to these measures. Importantly, there is already a valid and reliable dataset that can deliver the data. This would be a measure of recurrent poverty. Recurrent poverty is when families go into and out of poverty repeatedly over time. The longitudinal dataset following the same families with children over time which is required to derive a measure of recurrent poverty is already available in the Growing up in Scotland (GUS) study. The work that I have undertaken using a measure of recurrent poverty in the GUS data suggests that this measure may be tapping into the idea of insecure or precarious employment. Furthermore, figure 1 below shows that, when recurrent poverty interacts with material deprivation, it is increasingly detrimental to child well-being.

Figure 1 – recurrent poverty, material deprivation and child well-being

md child wellbeing

I would be happy to discuss matters of recurrent poverty and impacts of low quality, insecure employment on families and children living in poverty.


What are your views on the Scottish Government’s proposals for the levels of child poverty that the targets will be set at?

The proposed child poverty targets of relative low income (<10%); absolute low income (<5%); material deprivation and low income combined (<5%); and persistent poverty (<5%) are ambitious, particularly in light of the caveats in the introduction that the Scottish Government does not hold all the levers to enable them to achieve these targets. They therefore need to be looked at in relation to the timescale and whether these measures are to be taken before housing costs or after housing costs. These current end targets seem unachievable on an after housing costs basis and extremely difficult to achieve on a before housing costs basis, unless radical changes to policy and legislation are made by the Scottish Government (specific question(s) answered below). My fear is that setting highly ambitious targets and only striving to achieve them, will result in a good-looking piece of legislation that cannot achieve its ambition. In other words, it will be all fur coat and no knickers, to coin a common Scottish expression. In other countries this has created a political backlash and led to those not in poverty blaming those in poverty for their continuing poverty. Both have weakened support for the maintenance of anti-poverty strategies.

While I welcome and admire how ambitious the Scottish Government is aiming to be in relation to child poverty, I would very much advocate a more pragmatic approach that uses data analysis and modelling to explore the differences between setting the targets on a before or after housing costs basis, and to explore the impact of percentage point decreases in the incidence and prevalence of child poverty over time and what can be achieved before 2030, 2035 et cetera. I would also strongly advocate the use of interim targets.


What are your views on the Scottish Government’s proposal to set targets on an after housing costs basis? For example, are there any disadvantages to this approach that we have not already considered?

I fully support using the after housing costs measure, as it is a more accurate reflection of living in poverty due to necessary housing costs, and I strongly advocate including and reporting on measures of child poverty on an after housing costs basis. However, I question what is to be gained by setting the targets on this measure only. I am concerned that the measure of child poverty would just absorb the cost of housing and that we would cease to be able to highlight the difference in the levels of child poverty before and after housing costs.

The cost of housing is such a pertinent issue, and one that the Scottish Government needs to address to make a real impact on child poverty, that I would not like to see it absorbed altogether but would prefer it to be reported on separately. There are interesting initiatives in other cities across Europe and beyond in relation to housing costs. One is to set rent controls in the private sector, which would help prevent the child poverty caused by the vastly inflated rents of cities like Edinburgh. Another is a restriction on short-term lets (e.g. AirBnB is now banned in several European cities) as these reduce the housing available for residents, increase area rents, decrease community cohesion and increase problems with noise et cetera. These are initiatives that would have a strong impact on the housing problem and are within the powers of the Scottish Government. I really do believe this is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to Be Bold.

Another problem with only using the after housing costs measure is that housing costs are driven by the area in which one lives and the impact of this would be hidden by that one measure alone. At present the child poverty measure is a household measure and not a geographical measure. By predicating the measure on an after housing costs basis it would also become a geographical measure. I think is important to report on both before and after housing costs.


What are your views on the Scottish Government’s proposal to set targets that are expected to be achieved by 2030?

I think 2030 is too soon, it will only be 13 years away when the legislation comes into effect, which is not nearly enough time to achieve the targets. I appreciate that the Scottish Government only has an ambition to strive to achieve the targets, but if it is serious about doing so, it needs to give itself time. It should also set out interim measures so that it can monitor success towards achieving the targets.


What are your views on the proposal that Scottish Ministers will be required by the Bill to produce a Child Poverty Delivery Plan every five years, and to report on this Plan annually?

The current requirement is that the Scottish ministers produce a child poverty strategy every three years and the proposal is to produce a child poverty delivery plan every five years. I think that every five years is too long: if it does not happen at the start of a parliament, it would overlap two parliaments, and possibly two administrations. This would not be good enough and would risk there being no accountability within a Parliamentary term. I think as a maximum it should be every four years.


Do you have any suggestions for how the measurement framework could usefully be improved? For example, are there any influencing factors that are not covered by the measurement framework? Or are there any additional indicators that could be added?

My academic area focuses on child poverty and data analysis. It is highly important that the correct data are collected and used in order to measure progress towards achieving the targets of the Child Poverty Bill. In your measurement framework, there are some measures that are not illuminating and some that are absent but would be illuminating. Using the government’s child poverty strategy framework I would recommend:


You should look at the employment rate of lone parents too as access to education, employment and childcare is a bigger issue for lone parents;

  • you should look at the cost of private nursery care for those under three years old (currently on average £45-50 per day in Edinburgh);
  • you should look at the proportion of (especially new) families claiming, or not claiming, their entitlement to Child Tax Credits, Working Tax Credits, and passported benefits (see Healthier Wealthier Children as before).
  • You should look at the proportion of people who are claiming all benefits they are entitled to. For example, one woman in my study who had received DLA and Carer’s Allowance for her son for over 10 years had never received the disability component of Child Tax Credits as she did not know this existed. There should be an automatic payment of related entitlements when a relevant benefit is received.
  • There should be a measure of how the Scottish welfare fund and other sources of hardship payments are being accessed.
  • You should measure the levels, frequency and spells of benefit sanctions for families with children.


  • I can see you have used the Health Behaviours in School-Aged Children study for some of your measures. While this is a good study and can be broken down by local authority, which makes it valuable, the data are only collected every four years and some of your ‘measures’ have a tenuous relationship with child poverty at best. The indicators that ought to be dropped as they bear little relationship to child poverty are: (1) percent of poorest 15-year-olds smoking (what about vaping? I understand that young people often go straight to vaping bypassing smoking altogether); (2) screen time; (3) finding it easy to talk to your mother; (4) and feeling accepted by pupils in the class. Not only are these data collected far too infrequently to be of any use, they are not measures of child poverty and are very tenuously linked at best.


  • I am very curious about the data that 10% of average incomes is spent on housing. Is this an ambitious target? The average rent of a two bedroomed flat in Edinburgh is £850 per month, a midmarket rent from a housing association two-bedroom flat in Edinburgh is £450 per month, on whose salary is this 10%? Are you including people that have all their housing costs paid for by housing benefit in this measure? I really struggle to understand this figure.
  • There should be a figure that represents how much the Scottish Government is spending on housing, improvements to housing conditions, area deprivation et cetera.

In general, these indicators also need to include figures on what the Scottish Government is doing to make improvements in each of these areas.


Do you have any additional views on a Child Poverty Bill for Scotland?

Yes. Increasingly my and others’ work is showing the importance of poverty on parental (in particular maternal) outcomes and their association with their children’s outcomes. Using GUS data, you can see that maternal mental health is strongly associated with income poverty and especially with material deprivation. I don’t believe it would be possible to mitigate, alleviate or eradicate child poverty by focusing on children only. While this may be difficult from a policy perspective, I fully believe that the well-being of mothers, in particular lone mothers, has to be part of the measurement framework for child poverty. There are many areas in which the Scottish Government can help achieve the ambition to eradicate child poverty by focusing on parents, in particular lone mothers, especially in relation to precarious employment, low levels of education and mental health.

Figure 2 – Maternal Mental Health, longitudinal poverty and material deprivation combined

md mental health

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Addressing vulnerability by putting cash in mums’ pockets

This blog was originally written for the Glasgow Centre for Population Health

There is a lot of negative attention these days towards those who are living with low incomes, and almost daily we see and hear reports of ‘lazy, work-shy scroungers’. When asked to estimate benefit fraud, people almost always woefully overestimate its incidence. In the British Social Attitudes Survey a third of people believed that “most people on the dole are fiddling” and over three quarters agreed with the statement “large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits”.

The actual rate of benefit fraud in 2014-15 was 0.8%. If truth be told, there is rather the opposite problem, especially for those in low income working families with children; that is, those who are entitled to certain benefits do not in fact claim them. For example, UK government statistics for 2013-14 show that only two thirds of those who are eligible for Working Tax Credits actually claim their entitlement.

There are numerous reasons why a family may not claim their full tax credit or benefit entitlement, not least of which is the awareness of their entitlement in the first place. This is especially true of those having their first children who may also be negotiating the confusing tax credit and benefit system for the first time.

Tax credit and benefit payments have recently been criticised for being inadequate for people’s needs. As they are means-tested, this suggests that being eligible for, or in receipt of these payments, is associated with a high level of need to begin with. In 2015, an unemployed single person received out-of-work benefits equivalent to 40% of what even the public says they need. Whether or not you agree that the levels of tax credits and benefits are sufficient for a family’s needs, it is unarguably the case that being eligible and not taking up tax credit and benefit entitlement must be greatly detrimental to the financial wellbeing of a family and must greatly increase their financial vulnerability.

Recent research in Scotland that uses the Growing Up in Scotland data shows that families experiencing financial vulnerability have increased maternal emotional distress and lower child wellbeing. One way to help improve the outcomes of families, particularly mothers and children, would be to increase their financial resources and reduce their financial vulnerability. One very straightforward way to do this, within the current context of tax credits and benefits, with no additional entitlement from either the UK or Scottish governments, would be to ensure that people, especially families, claim their full entitlement to tax credits and benefits. This is known as income maximisation. There are multiple examples of good practice in income maximisation; however, one study in Glasgow targets the very population that has most to lose: mothers with new babies. It is called Healthier, Wealthier Children (HWC).

Healthier, Wealthier Children

HWC is an initiative that helps provide money and welfare advice to pregnant women and families with young children experiencing, or at risk of, child poverty across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. HWC is primarily located within the frontline NHS early years workforce, such as midwives and health visitors in collaboration with local money/welfare advice services. Health staff identify the need for help and advice among pregnant women and families and refer them to partners in advice services.

The performance report to February 2016 shows that HWC achieved just over £11 million in cumulative financial gains for over 10,300 pregnant women and families. Comparing this cumulative figure of £11 million with the initial costs and combined annual running costs (approximately £2.2m), the project has conservatively achieved a benefit-to-cost ratio of around 5:1; a major achievement that exceeds the project’s initial remit and best case scenario expectations.

Why was so much money in Greater Glasgow and Clyde unclaimed? Well, an evaluation of HWC shows that families referred by HWC were unaware of their entitlements and would not have approached traditional mainstream advice services for help. On the plus side, as a result of HWC intervention, families reported reduced stress, improved mood and an increased sense of self-worth and security. Some also reported an improvement in relationships with family and friends.

We know that tackling poverty and income inequalities remains key to improving health and reducing health inequalities, and for the mothers and children who receive the HWC service this is certainly the case. What remains to be seen, in post-election Scotland, is whether such an initiative can be rolled out more widely, across all of Scotland, so that new parents can access that to which they are entitled and help prevent child poverty and financial vulnerability.

Once families are actually receiving their entitlement can we then focus the discussion on whether or not the level of entitlement is sufficient to prevent child poverty and financial vulnerability.

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Recent changes to measuring child poverty

This blog was originally written for Challenge Poverty Week 2015

The Conservative government is planning to change the current measure of child poverty, which combines income (60% median equivalised) and material deprivation (21 items commonly agreed as essential by members of the general public for adults and children separately, which are then combined to create an index of multiple deprivation).[1]

The proposed new child poverty measure would comprise commonplace family characteristics such as: family ‘breakdown’, ill-health, lack of skills, inadequate housing, ‘poor’ schools and ‘worklessness’. Let’s lay aside the fact that these characteristics do not distinguish between poor and non-poor people as they are experienced by many people at different points in the lives[2]. Let’s also lay aside the fact that these dimensions do not measure poverty itself, but rather are risks, consequences or causes of falling into poverty. Let’s instead focus on what analysing income and material deprivation can tell us in relation to child wellbeing.

It is worth briefly commenting on the background to the current child poverty measure. It was reached after a period of extensive consultation using research evidence. Not only has the 60% median equivalised income measure succeeded in capturing the effects of complex economic situations, it is also the official child poverty measure of the EU, OECD and UNICEF, and is now used by other governments[3].To change this measure now not only negates the considered and considerable efforts of many, it will separate UK child poverty from the rest of Europe and beyond. The government also risks being accused of changing the goalposts in recognition of its impending failure to reduce or eradicate child poverty.[4]

Let us turn our attention now to income, material deprivation and child wellbeing. The following chart is from my recent analysis of six waves of the birth cohort study Growing up in Scotland (See Figure 1 below) when the children are aged six years old. The red line with mean equal to 0 is the average of child wellbeing across all children in the study. Any positive numbers above this line shows higher than average levels of child wellbeing and any negative numbers below this line shows lower than average child wellbeing.

This chart shows that material deprivation (solid line) and recurrent poverty (dotted line) are each associated with lower than average child wellbeing; increasing levels of either income poverty or material deprivation result in increasingly low levels of child wellbeing. However, when both recurrent poverty and material deprivation are measured together (combined multiplicatively in an interaction term to be technical – dashed line), this results in exceedingly low levels of wellbeing for children, greater than either material deprivation or income poverty added together. This indicates that income and material deprivation while related, for the definition of material deprivation is not being able to afford consensually agreed necessities, are picking up on different aspects of economic disadvantage, which when combined, equal to more than the sum of their parts in their association with low levels of child wellbeing. This suggests that using both income and material deprivation in a measure of poverty is valuable and necessary.

Figure 1 – Interaction term between recurrent poverty and material deprivation for child wellbeing







Another advantage to the current measure of income and material deprivation is that it is objectively measured and comparable across time and place. The proposed new components of child poverty, i.e. family ‘breakdown’, ill-health, lack of skills, inadequate housing, ‘poor’ schools and parental ‘worklessness’,  do not distinguish between poor and non-poor people but result in a highly stigmatised and distressed group of people.

[1] For more details on how this index is created, and what the implications are of how the index is created, please refer to Treanor (2014).

[2] I have written about this more fully in a consultation response.



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Free education for mothers living in poverty may help alleviate child poverty

This blog was first published in The Conversation.

Improve the school results of children from poor backgrounds and they will escape poverty in adulthood. This is the way the UK government believes it can alleviate child poverty, built on a belief in the power of education to create social mobility.

But there is much evidence to suggest that access to education is unequal across the UK. And while the long-term goal to increase social mobility is laudable, it does nothing to lift children out of poverty now. Instead, it shows a lack of consideration for the lives of children currently living in poverty.

Yet if policy priorities were to focus on giving the parents of children living in poverty access to further and higher education, this could bring more immediate benefits. Unfortunately, in England at least, education is becoming increasingly unaffordable for lone parents and part-time students to access.

Ways out of poverty

The latest government figures show that in 2012-13 there were 2.3m children living in relative low income, even before housing costs were taken into account, with another 2.6m in absolute low income.

In 2000, Scotland had higher child poverty rates than England, but this has fallen over the past decade. By 2011-12, child poverty before housing costs was 18% in England compared to 17% in Scotland, both down from over 30%. One of the principal reasons for the faster decline in Scotland has been attributed to increased employment rates among lone parentsafter the Scottish government had a policy targeted at this group.

The evidence shows that employment does not always lift families out of poverty: there are more poor children in households with a wage-earner than without. Yet my research with the Child Poverty Action Group shows that parents – in this case single mothers – who accessed further and higher education succeeded in finding paid employment and that this had a positive impact on both them and their children.

Gaining confidence and skills

My research studied the lives of 20 families living in poverty, ten in England and ten in Scotland. In Scotland, four of the ten families I studied were led by single mothers who were participating in further or higher education. None in England were. Two of these four Scottish mothers completed further education and obtained their first job after becoming a parent: one is the mother of three boys aged six, ten and 13 and the other the mother of two boys aged ten and 12. The other two mothers, who each have one son, continued on to take degree programmes.

People living in poverty often need a boost in confidence and skills before they start up education again. For three of the women I studied, this came through volunteering opportunities. One explained that volunteering was “really good for me” and that the organisation had: “talked me into doing my degree. It was always something I wanted to do. I was just needing a wee boost.”

Boost to family well-being

Through access to education, these women gained in well-being, confidence, skills and self-esteem. They made friends, widened their social networks and found universities and colleges to be excellent sources of financial support through hardship funds.

By completing their education and obtaining a job, the lives of their children demonstrably improved. With their mothers less burdened by financial worries, the children were happier and were able to enjoy treats such as the cinema and an occasional meal out – all new to them. One mother, who had done a Higher National Diploma, said getting a job meant she was able to pass her driving test, save up to buy a car and take her children on holiday.

Another mother said the knowledge that she had completed a college course and succeeded in getting a job she loved had a positive impact on her children. Her eldest son, aged 13, has told her he is proud of her and feels a positive change.

Access to education has helped to increase social mobility in this cluster of families. It has not only provided the mothers with the skills and confidence to engage with their own education, but also with that of their children, for who they are now role models.

Education has also opened up a world to which neither they nor their children may have aspired. It has provided them with a starting point to bigger and better opportunities. One mother said: “I know that I’ve got loads more to offer… hopefully I’ll get better jobs and better paid jobs.”

Squeeze on part-time education

Access to education has been possible for these mothers because there are no fees for higher education in Scotland. In England, since fees were raised to £9,000 per annum, there has been a 40% decline in applications to universities from part-time students, amounting to 105,000 fewer applicants, nine out of ten of whom are mature.

Between 2010 and 2013, there has been a 14% reduction in applications from full-time mature students, amounting to 18,500 fewer applicants. Among these potential mature students will be parents and lone parents.

The increase of tuition fees has effectively removed access to further and higher education for many poorer parents, which blocks a viable route out of poverty for them and their children. For social mobility to continue improving, access to education for low-income parents needs to be made cheaper and easier.

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Routes out of poverty: education and social mobility

This was first published for Challenge Poverty Week 2014 and then for the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships.

Education and social mobility can alleviate child poverty, but not in the way the government supposes, i.e. by improving future educational outcomes of poor children in order that they do not become poor adults. Rather, child poverty in the here and now can be alleviated if we allow low-income parents free access to further and higher education.

The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017, released for consultation by the Coalition Government last February, is focused on ‘breaking the cycle of disadvantage’ and on ensuring that ‘where you start in life should not determine where you end up’. Two of its three routes to achieving this are: Supporting families into work and increasing their earnings; and preventing poor children becoming poor adults through raising their educational attainment[1].

To address the first route their principal means of supporting families into work and increasing their earnings is through the Work Programme and other employment-related activities such as raising the minimum wage and the personal tax allowance. A secondary means is through ‘improving qualifications’. Further investigation reveals that this translates into improving basic literacy and numeracy.

To address the second route, their principle means of preventing poor children becoming poor adults through raising their educational attainment, is to focus on compulsory schooling with the responsibility and accountability for this lying with schools, teachers and parents. As the government notes, they want to ‘ensure that the parents of tomorrow will have better qualifications’[2] -presumably better than the parents of today.

Now, this raises many areas of concern, from the lack of consideration for the lives of children as lived in childhood[3], to the ability of employment to lift families out of poverty[4], given the fact that there are more poor children in households with a wage-earner than without; however, I would like to focus on an issue that I have come across with my current research with the Child Poverty Action Group, and that is the further and higher education of parents living in poverty as a route into work and, hopefully, out of poverty.

In my longitudinal, qualitative study of twenty families living in poverty, ten in England and ten in Scotland, four of my Scottish ten were able to access further or higher education during the course of the research. None in England were. Two of this four completed further education and obtained their first job since becoming a parent: one is the mother of three boys aged 6, 10 and 13 and the other the mother of two boys aged 10 and 12. The remaining two went on to study degree programmes: these two mothers have one son each. The antecedent to accessing education for these women was gaining confidence and skills through volunteering.

These women gained in wellbeing, confidence, skills and self-esteem. They made friends and widened their social networks. The lives of their children demonstrably improved. Of her new job, Jennifer says: ‘I totally love it. I’m really, really happy. So, last year was a great year for me. I passed my driving test, got my wee car, which I saved up and paid for myself, and I took my kids on holiday. I love it, totally love it’.

Jennifer says that the knowledge that she has completed a college course and succeeded in getting a job she loves has had a positive impact on her children, particularly her eldest son (aged 13), who has told her that he is proud of her. She says: ‘my oldest one, he’s often saying to me: “It’s good the way you are now, you’re really happy now. Remember when it was like this?” So he feels a positive change. So that’s really good’.

This is only a brief glimpse into this research but I want to highlight that in Scotland, education is a viable route into employment and out of poverty for parents who are unemployed, due to the system of no fees in Scotland (this is not entirely straightforward as becoming a student when you’re a parent can raise issues with the benefits system, and I will write about those another time). In England, there has been a 40% decline in applications to universities from part-time students, amounting to 105,000 fewer applicants, 9/10 of whom are mature[5]. For full-time students, there has been a 14% reduction from 2010 to 2013, amounting to 18,500 fewer applicants[6]. Among this potential mature student community will be parents and lone parents. By increasing the fees in other parts of the UK to £9,000 per year, the government has effectively removed access to further and higher education for many poorer parents and prevented a route out of poverty for them and their children.

[1] The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017, pg 11.
[2] The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017, pg 25.
[3] Ridge, Tess (2002) Childhood poverty and social exclusion: from a child’s perspective, Bristol: Policy Press.
[4] Shildrick, Tracy, MacDonald, Robert, Webster, Colin and Garthwaite, Kayleigh (2012) Poverty and Insecurity: Life in Low-Pay, No-Pay Britain, Bristol: Policy Press.

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Child Poverty

This blog was published for the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships on the back of a consultation response I wrote when the then Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government at Westminster sought to change the existing measure of child poverty, a process which continues today. The consultation response can be found under ‘Publications’.

When is a family’s life impaired by living in poverty? How do we know? What does it look like? How do we measure it? What rights do poor people have to meet the material needs that others take for granted? Why does child poverty in the UK matter? Is it because of the future financial and social costs to society? Or is it the lived experience of poverty during childhood? As austerity bites and attitudes (in the media) towards the poor and the vulnerable harden, whose responsibility is it to ensure that everyone, irrespective of wealth, is treated with dignity and respect?

These are among the questions not considered in the UK government’s ideas for a new measure of child poverty.

Before considering the proposed new measure of child poverty, let’s look at the existing one. The one currently used was reached through lengthy consultation with skilled and knowledgeable people. It measures people’s income: (1) in relation to the income spectrum across the UK (relative poverty); (2) in relation to a fixed point in time (absolute poverty); and (3) it measures the affordability and ownership of material items, such as two pairs of all-weather shoes and a winter coat (material deprivation).  The items that make up the list of material deprivation were deemed necessary by a cross-section of ordinary people (the consensual method).  This is the one that current and future governments were obligated to reduce under the Child Poverty Act (2010), which is now being dismantled. So why change it?

Well, the government doesn’t like it for one – it has drawn criticism from Iain Duncan Smith for being simplistic. Yes, using the relative poverty line alone, those who are just above the poverty line may face similar hardships as those just below the poverty line, so it is not sensitive to this aspect. Yet, it is more than just a relative poverty line. It is multidimensional (as set out above), objective, well-defined, comparable, and above all, measurable. It is not perfect but it is widely used across institutions such as the UN, OECD and the EU, which allows comparability.

The proposals put forward by the government for a new measure of poverty cover eight dimensions: income and material deprivation; worklessness; unmanageable debt; poor housing; parental skill level; access to quality education; family stability; and parental health (including young carers, drug and alcohol dependency, and mental health issues). The government believes that these denote a multidimensional measure of poverty. Let’s leave aside the fact that income and material deprivation already make a multidimensional measure of poverty, let’s focus instead on the suggested new dimensions. There are three issues that strike me about them.

The first is how little they discriminate among people in the population. Who hasn’t experienced a separation or remarriage in the family? Who hasn’t experienced ill-health? Who is debt free? These questions don’t even take us past the Royal family.

The second is that these are not measures of child poverty, but consequences, and sometimes causes, of poverty. Causes and consequences of poverty can be mutually reinforcing, such as ill-health leading to poverty and poverty leading to ill-health. Some of these dimensions are relatively ordinary life experiences that, if handled sensitively and without conflict, leave no adverse impact on children.

The third is the lack of definition. How many of these circumstances, in what order, at what time period, for how long, count as poverty? Forever? Similarly, do all conditions have to be present, in which case, the government may have eradicated child poverty overnight? Or do only a few dimensions have to be present, in which case, the majority of the population may be living with child poverty?

The consultation itself has been called a ‘sham‘ as the government maintains that the measure will be implemented, it’s the how that is being consulted upon. The proposed new measure itself has attracted accusations that the government is trying to change the goalposts to distract from the fact that they may fail to reduce child poverty as demanded by the Child Poverty Act. These criticisms may or may not be valid; however, what is clear is that this imminent measure of poverty does not bear witness to the research evidence so carefully collected over many years. This proposed new measure is the result of this government’s particular ideology and methodological confusion, one that muddles up measures of poverty with its causes and consequences, and one that blames the behaviour and circumstances of poor people for being in poverty.

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