AT last week’s Conservative Party conference, David Cameron spoke of making Britain a “land of opportunity” in which those who are willing to work hard and make the most of their skills will be given every opportunity to get on in life.
Worthy as that vision is, the reality for too many Yorkshire children is that their life chances are all but determined for them by the time of their seventh birthday – and invariably the outlook they are left facing is a desperately bleak one.
That is the stark warning delivered in the Too Young to Fail report published today by Save the Children. It reveals there are 3,300 seven-year-olds in this region who have less than a one-in-six chance of achieving five good GCSEs – the minimum standard set by the Government.
It amounts to a damning indictment of the way in which youngsters are failed first by their parents and then by the education system, leaving them staring down the barrel of a lifetime of under-achievement and a reliance on state handouts that costs the country dear.
It underlines the need for a greater emphasis to be placed on the first two years pupils spend at primary school. Yet the task of solving this problem should not simply be left to those teachers whose job is to try to close the yawning attainment gap between these pupils and their classmates.
The fact is that children from poorer backgrounds are handicapped by a number of societal factors.
They are less likely to have parents with the ability, confidence or time to help with their learning when they are very young – or to have access to high quality childcare, schooling and extra-curricular activities.
All too often this lack of opportunity passes from one generation to the next, a vicious circle that must be broken in order to reduce both the benefits bill and the number of young people neither in education, employment or training.
For the sake of long-term economic recovery, Britain simply cannot afford to lose the estimated £30bn worth of untapped potential that will result by 2030 if these children continue to lag behind their peers.
A lack of dignity
AT the opposite end of the age spectrum to those children being let down by ongoing failures in early years education is society’s betrayal of those elderly and disabled people who find themselves at the mercy of an overstretched social care system that lacks humanity on too many occasions.
The latest evidence is research by Leonard Cheshire Disability, a leading care charity, which reveals how the frail have to choose between being made a drink or being taken to the toilet because their carers only have 15 minutes to attend to their needs before moving on to another client.
It is a depressing reflection of the governance of this country’s public finances that a more humane way cannot be found to look after those people who have paid their taxes throughout their working lives in the expectation that they would be afforded some dignity during their latter years.
Yet, while Care Minister Norman Lamb is right to highlight the need to spend existing resources more “effectively”, his call for a “much richer collaboration between the health statutory services and the community and volunteers” is, frankly, little more than a sticking plaster solution.
How is this going to help those OAPs who are on meagre incomes – and cannot count on relatives, for whatever reason, to help with their most basic care needs?
This is not to belittle Mr Lamb’s efforts, but perhaps there now needs to be a national debate on whether spending needs to be increased to prevent an even greater care crisis – and how this can be achieved. After all, a regular test of a civilised society is the compassion it shows towards its most vulnerable.
IT is significant that Ed Miliband tried to outflank David Cameron’s reshuffle by pointing out that 40 per cent of the shadow cabinet are female – and nearly a third of Labour’s top team were only elected to Parliament for the first time in 2010.
Like each of the main leaders, he is clearly placing a premium on communication as the next election dawns, hence why Leeds MP Rachel Reeves – a former Bank of England economist – is given the welfare brief while Wakefield MP Mary Creagh’s job as shadow transport secretary will be to determine whether her party should drop its support for HS2.
Yet gender, age – or regional accents in the case of the Tories and their attempt to become the party of “flat caps” – should not be the determining factors.
It should be an individual’s ability to do the job, an issue that was largely ignored by the national broadcast media as they focused on Labour’s tribalism rather than the significance of Mr Miliband deciding that Ed Balls is still the best person to speak for the Opposition on the economy, the most significant decision of all.
As for the Tories, Mr Cameron’s new-look team already have their work cut out to prove they can do a better job than their predecessors – the test of any reshuffle. After all, some appointments – like Helen Grant to the sport, tourism and equalities role – suggest that the changes are cosmetic ones driven by convenience rather than ideology.