2021 Challenge: Improving Life Chances

Economy Picture of Welsh flag
ViewsApril 18th, 2016

In the second of the series on the challenges facing the next Assembly, Victoria Winckler looks at the need to improve life chances.

James Carville famously said ‘It’s the economy, stupid”.

Well it is, but the economy is not the only issue that the next Assembly will need to address.  Wales’ society is also undergoing a massive transformation.  Our new politicians will need to take into account these changes over the next five years if they are going to make a real difference.

Demographic change means there are likely to be 115,000 more older people and 25,000 more children in 2022 than there were in 2012. This shift alone will change the level and pattern of demand for public services, from the NHS and social care to education.

There are already warning signs of pressure in some areas.  In terms of education, gaps in attainment between better-off and poor children show every sign of persisting, even if the gap is narrowing.  Housing is extremely likely to continue to be in short supply, so that by 2020 around 20 per cent of households (predominantly young people and families) are expected to live in the private rented sector.

And there is no sign that discrimination and inequality – whether associated with gender, race, age, disability or income will reduce.

A key challenge for the incoming Welsh Government is to maximise people’s opportunities to cope with change and to ‘get on’, irrespective of their background.

This ought to involve eradicating the disadvantages caused by low income or characteristics such as ethnicity, disability, age and gender. The education and training system – including schools but also pre-school learning, further and higher education, work-based learning and adult learning – is absolutely critical to this task. 

Imagine if social background made no difference to outcomes:

  • Imagine if as many children from, say, Pen-y-dre High School on the Gurnos estate in Merthyr Tydfil went to Russell Group universities as children from, say, Radyr Comp.
  • Imagine if half of the chief executives of Wales’ public bodies, businesses and politicians were women.
  • Imagine if the average cleaner or care assistant was as likely to live to the age of 90 as a lawyer or doctor.
  • and so on ….

Improving life chances is not just about individuals’ one-off achievements. The next few years hold many uncertainties – a Brexit? another recession? Scotland leaving the UK? robots and drones? to name just a few.  People, communities and institution need to be able to manage and cope with change – to use a buzz word, they need to be resilient.

The future Welsh Government must encourage resilience by providing a ‘step up’ at critical points in people’s lives.  These are invariably transitions, such as leaving school, college or university; at the birth of a child; if faced with redundancy or when affected by long-term illness. And it must ensure that there is a ‘safety net’ in hard times, so that nobody in 2020 Wales is without the basics of food, shelter, warmth and companionship.

Will they do it? Let’s see

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation. This article is based on the final report ‘The Shape of Wales to come’.

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