A study of predicting welfare scroungers and providing targeted support to vulnerable people

“Test predicts which children will grow up to be drain on society – when they are just three years old” screamed the headline in the Telegraph this week. Posting the article on Facebook sparked a flurry of fascinating discussion, ranging from eugenics and normalisation through to private education and Philip Larkin. Some of it rather took me by surprise…

Whereas I had, perhaps naively, assumed that the knowledge of how we could better target resources on preventative interventions to those who most need support, others saw this as a sinister development.

I realised from the outset that the Telegraph had, as is their way, taken a particularly unpleasant slant on the research to blame these people in a barely disguised throwback to the Victorian notion of the ‘undeserving poor’. How else can one explain opinions (rather misleadingly presented as ‘news’) like this:

“A simple test at the age of three can determine whether children will grow up to be a burden on society, needing excessive welfare, ending up in jail or becoming obese.”


I had not really considered that this evidence, in the wrong hands (or in the ‘wrong minds’) might provide the justification for writing off children as young as 3 as criminals. Nor had I envisaged how this research might be used to ostracise young children who fail to conform to socially prescribed notions of what is ‘normal’. The authors of the research (and not the Telegraph article) though clearly had, referencing the “…warnings (that) are issued about the myth of early-childhood determinism…”

While, as many pointed out, it is not a new idea to suggest that you can accurately predict future outcomes by looking at the characteristics or test results of young children. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (my particular favourite) and a growing body of evidence on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) support the social determinants model of health inequality.

The social determinants of health are, according to the World Health Organisation the circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness. These circumstances are in turn shaped by a wider set of forces: economics, social policies, and politics.”

 What the WHO doesn’t tell you is how political perspectives can take you from evidence of childhood experience and life outcomes to characterising children as deviant scroungers.

Reporting the same research, the BBC felt it appropriate to point out that “the researchers stress that children’s outcomes are not set at the age of three.”

Now this post was not intended to be about epistemology and the search for knowledge and truth – I’ll leave that to Karl Popper. Nor was it supposed to be about journalistic standards and the way facts are distorted by shoddy hacks and ideologues. It was supposed to be about the way that evidence can enable a more targeted and insight-led deployment of resources. If we are able to identify people that might need support or be at risk in the future then surely investment in preventative interventions is a good idea.

What I have learned is that the values and views of the world which underpin our approach are crucial. If you start with the view that people are inherently good and that with support they can achieve great things the way you might interpret these research findings will completely be completely different to those who see the poor and vulnerable as ‘broken’. Jude Habib has eloquently explained why we need to challenge this ‘deficit language’ and start adopting a strength-based approach which recognises and nurtures people’s talents and capabilities.

Where some see evidence that can inform a sensible way to target support to those who need it, others see it as a reason to write people off. In my work at Social Engine we advocate an evidence-based and insight-led approach but this discussion has reminded me that data are not and cannot be neutral, passive and objective when seen through the eyes of an individual.


For the epistemologists among you, the research was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour and can be found here.


Street Life? It’s child’s play!

Egged on by Play England’s Director, Cath Prisk, and a post by Rob Greenland on what happens when kids play in the street, I’ve said I would write a post on children’s street play…..so here goes.

When I was a kid I use to spend more time outside than we did inside. My best friend at primary school was actually expected to go out and play from when school finished until supper time. His grandmother, who used to look after him when his parents were at work, would say ‘off you go Steven, come back for your dinner’. We can’t have been more than about 9. There would generally be a knock at the door, followed by the ubiquitous ‘can Toby can come out to play?’ Invariably the answer was yes and off I would trot.

I don’t really remember what we got up to, lots of ‘hanging around’ as my mum describes it. Sometimes there’d be a football or a game of cricket, other times we’d amuse ourselves climbing walls or finding other mischief to make. We really weren’t naughty (or perhaps that should be ‘we weren’t really naughty’?), but I suspect today if we were hanging around like that we may very well be labelled as anti social.

I think we’re more worried these days about accidents, cars and stranger danger than we were then. And although I’m not a great one for nostalgia I can’t help thinking we’ve lost something special and fun that’s far less commonly part of our children’s lives.

Having said that, my children are always playing in the street. We’re lucky that the road we live in is a crescent that connects to the adjoining road in two places, so there’s no through traffic. Actually, I say ‘lucky’ but having a quiet road was one of the main reasons we wanted to live there. I don’t think it would be correct to say this was so the kids could play on the street, but it’s definitely one of the advantages.

Although it’s not a long road (there are only about 50 houses altogether) a number of families with young children live there and we do have a bit of a ‘child street scene’, particularly in summer. The favoured play generally involves cycling, roller skating or scooting up and down, or just running like a pack of 8 year old wolves. Even our two-year old is keen to get in on the action, giving us the slip at the earliest opportunity – the door is generally left open when the children are in the street – and diving off to join the party.

Like Rob’s experience, I’ve found that children playing together are a catalyst for neighbourliness. Kids don’t stand on ceremony and aren’t concerned by how well they know, or don’t know someone…they just get on and play. And when you’ve been to retrieve your children from someone’s house two or three times, it’s hard not to get to know them.

It’s usually just as we’re sitting down to eat when there’s a little knock at the door and that age-old refrain ‘can the children come out to play?’ And despite my mild irritation at the interruption, there’s a part of me that loves to hear that phrase.