I have just returned from a family law conference about parenting, at which I gave a paper on childrearing and the law. It was entitled The Children of No-Fault Divorce. In it I set out the results of research that show that poverty and family breakdown are major issues in children’s failure to reach their potential. In fact family breakdown is more significant than poverty, especially in the earliest years of life. International studies have revealed the deprivation and harm caused to the children of divorce and those raised in single or cohabiting parent families. The response of governments has been to focus on money as the solution, to fund projects for children and to try to extract more maintenance from absent fathers. The emphasis on the children’s material wellbeing has failed to narrow the general gap in achievements between children of broken families and others. The issue of family formation in children’s success has been ignored. Poverty is one, but not the main issue in the well documented under-achievement and other problems of children of broken homes. It is a painful topic to confront and of course there are individuals who do not conform to the statistical patterns. The remedies lie in recognition of the importance of stable family formation and in parental commitment to children’s education. I could write a lot more on this – but I want to link these findings to the government’s drive to promote social mobility. Alan Milburn is the government tsar for social mobility and he has targeted the legal profession in particular. As Chairman of the Bar Standards Board I have a responsibility to pronote a diverse profession.
I explained in an earlier blog Law Ladies (6 May) why there are so few women in the upper echelons of the judiciary. The Bar has, however, been making strenuous efforts to open up the profession. Or rather, to try to restore the social mobility that used to exist when grammar schools and free university education enabled many a law student from a poor background to reach the top. I was myself a beneficiary. The Bar has a loan scheme; £4.5m is given out in scholarships to intending barristers; salaries during pupillage have been increased; every school in the country is given access to career information; there are career days for schools; recruitment panels are trained to ensure no bias in the selection of pupils and tenants; data on barristers is collected and published; there is work experience and mentoring for sixthformers and new recruits. Every effort is made, with some success. About half the new entrants are women; 77% are white. It is true that the retention rate of women as the years go by is worrying, but that is the case for all the demanding professions, such as medicine, which are difficult to reconcile with family life. The Bar is proud of its diversity profile.
Nevertheless, it is still said that the profession is socially exclusive. If this is so, and it is open to doubt, then the causes lie not in the way the Bar conducts itself, but in external factors. First, failings in school education; second the expense of university education and study for the Bar; and third, the cuts in legal aid which will remove publicly funded family and criminal work as a slender but reliable source of support for newly qualified barristers (especially women and ethnic minorities). But above all, note, if everyone is to enjoy social mobility, there will always be some who have not moved up as much as others. Indeed, it is fashionable to sneer at the middle classes, so why should someone aspire to join them? Seriously, though, above all, it seems that one’s chances in life owe more to the parenting situation at birth and the care given in the first 3 years of life than to anything else that comes later. But this is not a topic that governments are willing to address.