The return of the social

In the public outpouring of (genuine) grief upon the loss of David Bowie yesterday, you could be excused for missing an interesting intervention by another David, the Prime Minister, heralding what appeared to be the return of the ‘social strategy’.

In sketching what might be included in the Government’s forthcoming Life Chances strategy (due out this Spring) we saw a return to the ‘Cameroon’ Cameron, the hoodie-hugging, post-bureaucratic Cameron of old, equally critical of the failures of the state for fostering dependency and the free market for leaving too many behind.

This was the Cameron that got lost in the chaos of the global financial crisis and ensuing fiscal crisis – replaced with an obsession with economic credibility which set the tone of the Conservative half of the Coalition government.

It seems like – whether through compiling a ‘bucket list’ for his last few years as premier or not – this Cameron is starting to find his feet again. The speech builds on his liberal, centrist conference speech – with its emphasis on spreading opportunity and removing structural barriers to progress, eg name-blind job applications – to more clearly define his understanding of the problem of poverty and how to solve it.

As he puts it:

‘To really defeat poverty, we need to move beyond the economics. We need a more social approach.’

In this he both critiques what he characterizes as the Left’s view that income poverty is all that matters (for a detailed discussion, see our Chief Executive’s Poverty in Perspective report) but also argues that the role of government isn’t simply economic management and job creation.

Instead he appears to adopt a ‘capabilities’ view – familiar to followers of Demos – that the role of Government is to develop independent, powerful people and communities, and to ensure a level playing field.

The crux of the speech revolves around how the state might seek to develop these capabilities without encouraging dependence – with a particular focus on those who haven’t yet left full-time education – in three key areas.

The first focuses on parenting. The evidence of the importance of what parents do during the early years on child development is endlessly reiterated (see our own Building Character, as well as the work of the Early Intervention Foundation) as is the evidence of the gap that develops before children even enter full-time education.

Cameron’s solution – which won’t be popular with the libertarian right – is to expand provision of parenting classes, and even more than that, make it aspirational to attend them. It will be interesting to see more detail on this (given the failure of a pilot under the Coalition) as well as how it fits with the plan to expand free childcare provision.

The second is the role of schools. Here Cameron attempts an intriguing amalgam of the ‘cultural literacy’ of E D Hirsch and the burgeoning movement towards character education – recognizing that knowledge matters but also that there should be more time and emphasis in school on social, emotional and moral development, or ‘character’. This is the right approach: in our evidence to the House of Lords social mobility committee last year we described how both literacy and numeracy and character capabilities mattered for later life success.

We at Demos have some ideas on what an education system that builds character might look like – and it will be interesting to see what policies are taken forward this year.

The third is what happens outside of school – whether in terms of youth social action or experience of the labour market. Our research has found that good quality youth social action can have a transformative impact both on individuals and the communities they serve. So the news that NCS is to be expanded, as well as integrated more closely with schools through inclusion in the national curriculum, is surely to be welcomed – the next step might be to include youth volunteering in a new school-leaving certificate, in what we called a ‘GiveBacc’.

But the Government should be seeking to maximise the impact of its investment in NCS, by strengthening the ‘life-cycle’ of youth social action – increasing opportunities to take part earlier in life and also after 16, whether through service year models or while studying or working. This is something to look for from the Office for Civil Society.

Finally, on careers, the Government’s Careers and Enterprise company is starting to pick up momentum, and the idea of a national mentoring programme is surely a strong one, given the evidence on the potential power of mentoring – as well as the positive impact of contact with employers while at school.

However, this should not neglect the role that schools themselves have to play, and there is a long way to go in improving careers provision – particularly for those young people who don’t want to go to university – as the Gatsby report and our own Commission on Apprenticeships revealed.

So while the policy isn’t all there yet – we’ll have to await the strategy for that – it’s good to see Cameron returning to what seems to be his real political passion.