Tackling child poverty through increasing employability for parents
1 Feb 2012
Helen Stevens, Research Officer
The coalition government's Programme for Government has made clear its commitment to ending child poverty by 2020. A New Approach to Tackling Child Poverty, the government's first national child poverty strategy has at its foundation the belief that 'work, not welfare, is the best route out of poverty'. However, at a time of cuts in public spending and high unemployment, there remain pressing questions on how to go about achieving this and at what cost. A recent IES study of the School Gates Employment and Support Initiative, a child poverty pilot, reveals some important lessons in how to tackle child poverty through improving parents' employability.
Outreach is key
Back in 2008, the previous Labour government launched a suite of pilots to test local approaches to tackling the issue of child poverty. The School Gates Employment Support Initiative, or 'School Gates' was one such pilot, which aimed to tackle child poverty by supporting parents into work. The pilot provided employment and enterprise support to parents of primary school children either at or within the school gates to help prepare them for going back to work. This initiative brought together local authorities, primary schools, Jobcentre Plus advisers, Regional Development Agencies, and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales to ensure that more joined-up services were able to reach the most deprived families.
The experience of the pilot shows that providing employment support within schools can be a great way to reach and support parents on low incomes and those out of work - a target group which Jobcentre Plus and local authority employment advisers have often struggled to engage. The study shows that the value of this kind of outreach lies in its ability to offer parents personalised, tailored and flexible support in a familiar, comfortable and trusted environment. This outreach also provides an opportunity to improve parents' perceptions of Jobcentre Plus: parents who initially held quite negative opinions of the organisation changed their minds after the positive experiences of the support they received from their adviser.
Joined-up services and effective partnership working
The initiative resulted in significant improvements in partnership working in most areas, with many local partners effectively linking the pilot into existing provision and forming new partnerships to ensure that they could provide flexible parent-focused employability support.
The best outcomes were achieved when Jobcentre Plus and local authority employment advisers succeeded in co-ordinating a multiagency response. By doing so they were able to link in with services to meet the needs of a family as a whole, whether this was helping parents to find affordable childcare, manage debt problems, find work experience placements or part-time work opportunities to fit in with school hours, or access short courses to build skills and confidence.
Changing attitudes to work
Perhaps most importantly however, the research suggests that School Gates provides an opportunity to encourage positive attitudes to work, with work being considered the 'norm'. This is consistent with the government message that parents who have children in full-time education and who are able to work, should be in work or actively seeking work. This is particularly relevant now since changes to the benefit system require more lone parents claiming income support to seek work sooner rather than later. Such attitudinal changes, which are notoriously hard to achieve, will be crucial if the government is to break intergenerational cycles of poverty and worklessness
Weighing up the costs
Beyond this, however, possibly the most encouraging finding of the research is that the positive outcomes of the initiative were not necessarily directly related to high levels of investment. Some areas had managed to achieve results on very limited resources. In these instances, what mattered more than costs was good working relationships between the partner organisations. Where pilots were able to link in with a wider network of local support, they could address the needs of the family as a whole. This offered value for money by avoiding duplication of provision and by ensuring that barriers were not addressed in isolation by different agencies. The best partnerships required sustained and committed engagement from all involved and a willingness to show flexibility with respect to traditional working practices and organisational culture.
Also, fundamental to the success of the initiative was the level of commitment from the school, and particularly the head teacher. The best results were achieved where schools were fully on board with the aims of the pilot and recognised the potential benefit to parents and children. It was also important for schools to have the capacity to provide trusted 'frontline' staff to help engage parents and support advisers.
Of course, even the most successful local interventions to tackle child poverty by moving parents closer to work will face broader challenges such as the current levels of high unemployment, the difficulty of finding part-time employment that fits around school hours, and childcare costs which are now the highest in Europe. However, this only strengthens the case for more joined-up local services in order to meet the often complex and multiple barriers that parents face in finding work.
 A New Approach to Tackling Child Poverty: Tackling the Causes of Disadvantage and Transforming Families' Lives (2011), Department for Work and Pensions and Department for Education
 Marangozov, R and Dewson, S (2011) Study of School Gates Employment Support Initiative, Department for Work and pensions, Research Report 747
For more information on this work, please contact Jim Hillage at IES.