This week has seen an unprecedented barrage of press releases, speeches and promises from the government relating to social justice. There’s the change to adoption law, prioritising lifelong stability for children over all other considerations, including short term care while support for the birth family is explored. There’s the creation of ‘a new generation of high flying mentors’ to support young people at risk of falling through the cracks, whether or not high fliers have any understanding of the cracks or the complex reasons why young people fall through them.
There’s the flattening of ‘sink estates’ with total disregard for community and the many people who struggle to create positive communities in contexts of extreme deprivation and decline. There’s parenting classes for all, and an increase in support for treatable problems such as poor mental health and addiction.
David Cameron praised Tiger Mothers and suggested that all parents should be similarly motivated. He wants to improve financial resilience by encouraging low income families to save – with what? He wants state schools to learn from ‘elite schools’ how to teach ‘curiosity, honesty, perseverance and service, character values, resilience and knowledge’ as if schools are solely responsible for raising children of good character. And as if we aren’t already trying, despite having to swim against the current of a measurement culture and inspection regime that’s out of control.
All these press releases, speeches and sound bites share common aims – to deliver on social justice reform. The Prime Minister wants to ensure that every child gets the best start in life; to transform the lives of the vulnerable; to improve social mobility and to enhance life outcomes. They are worthwhile aims and taken together they do suggest the possibility of a more equitable society. But at best they completely miss the point and at worst they insult the many, many people in our society who work tirelessly to improve the lives of our children and young people.
The ideas are good in one respect. Emergent theory shows that complex problems such as social injustice can’t be dealt with one issue at a time – for example poor housing one year, low educational expectation the next year, and so on. All the issues have to be addressed simultaneously in order to overcome the problem in all its complexity. In this respect, the extent of the government’s plan promises effectiveness.
But it also completely misses the point of human flourishing. Society is made up of communities. Communities are made up of people. Flourishing people live in relationship. Nowhere in this extensive plan is relationship considered. High flying mentors may, or may not, help young people, but it’s not the career success of a mentor which will make a difference. It will be the quality of a relationship built on compassion, empathy and value for the unique human identity of every individual. Relationships take time to build. They’re messy. They’re complicated. They don’t fit neatly into a time slot provided by an employer delivering social justice.
Maybe flattening ‘sink estates’ will solve the problem of poor housing, if replacement housing is of a high quality. But it will also rip the heart out of communities without any regard for the human need to live in community. Communities evolve through relationship; flattening estates will flatten the very essence of what makes a community vibrant, even one with severe social problems. Maybe members of the government should spend a week or two teaching in a school on a ‘sink estate’ to help them understand.
So it’s a bit of a curate’s egg of a social plan, imposing a particular, narrow set of values on society and aiming to get everyone in it to contribute to the gross national product. Rather like the culture of testing rampaging its way through education, it assumes that social justice is a measurable outcome of government dictat.
Perhaps the saddest statement of the week was made by the Prime Minister, who said that improving family life was ‘the best anti-poverty measure ever’. Even family value can now be measured – by its financial and material success. It sounds like a government worshipping at the shrine of the economy – yet again.
At the risk of repeating last week’s blog, I wonder if David Cameron knows about the work of TLG Early Intervention mentors? Or the many Christians who mentor students in their local schools? I wonder if he knows about Make Lunch, or the hope that Christians offer to the disadvantaged, the hungry, the lonely and the sick? And if he does, I wonder if he knows why Christians do this – not to promote material success, but because God’s love for his humanity compels us to act. We know that Jesus is the bread of life and anyone who comes to him will never go spiritually hungry or thirsty again. We want everyone else to know it, too.
I wonder if David Cameron understands that a good family is where we learn to love and be loved; to trust and be trusted; to forgive and be forgiven; to fail and to have the confidence to try again. God designed the family not as a magic bullet against poverty, but as a place where we can grow and flourish in safety, to become the people that God wants us to be. We may be rich: we may be poor. We may be high flyers: we may not.
The prophet Micah asks the question ‘what does the LORD require of you?’ The answer isn’t success. It isn’t wealth. It isn’t health and happiness. God requires us ‘to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God’. That’s the key to a just, fair and cohesive society.