We won’t make work pay without investment in single parents’ education

Education, Inequality, Poverty in the UK

Gingerbread, the UK-based single parent charity, has today launched a new report calling for more government investment in further education for single parents. Gingerbread’s campaign officer, Matt Hawkins, explains here how this would not only turn the tide on child poverty, but also benefit the UK economy.


A quarter of British families are headed by single parents and yet the evidence continues to mount that welfare reforms risk landing single parents and their children in a poverty trap. Oxfam’s report, Multiple Cuts, published this April, found that over 200,000 single parents are, on average, £16 per week worse off now than in 2011

“The numbers of children in both absolute and relative poverty are set to increase significantly over the next few years”More recently the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published research which concluded that “the numbers of children in both absolute and relative poverty are set to increase significantly over the next few years”. Children in single parent families are already twice as
likely to grow up in poverty as children in couple families. And work isn’t always the answer: a third of single parents working part-time are living in poverty, as are almost a fifth of single parents working full-time. 

Finding work that offers the right balance of family-friendly hours on decent pay is particularly problematic for single parents. For a multitude of reasons, single parents often don’t have the traditional or formal qualifications needed to help them compete in the crowded jobs market. This puts them on the back foot. It means that when they do find work, over two-thirds of single parents enter the three lowest paid industries: elementary jobs such as cleaning and catering; sales and customer service work; and personal services occupations. This has a huge impact
on their financial security and their ability to make ends meet. 

Gingerbread’s new report, Making the Grade, offers a set of proposals to help support single parents gain additional qualifications.

We’re calling on the government to fully fund single parents to gain their first Level 3 qualification

, the equivalent of an A-level. Our analysis has shown that single parents with a Level 3 qualification:

  • Have longer periods of sustained employment
  • Spend less time on out-of-work benefits
  • Secure better wages
  • Are more likely to work longer hours.

Sustained employment, better wages, and longer hours: these are all vital components that will help single parents to provide for their families and start to turn the tide on child poverty. This investment would also bring substantial returns to the government. The increased tax returns that would come from boosting single parent qualification levels could help the government to make gains of up to £670 million. If the government commits to investing in single parents’ futures, everyone benefits.

Any old job just won’t do

In the aftermath of spending cuts more single parent families will experience poverty unless action is taken to boost their potential to earn more income. However, the government’s “work-first” approach – taken across jobcentres and Work Programme providers – ignores the fact that many jobs have such low pay that they fail to offer the financial security that single parents need to provide for their family. Any
old job just won’t do

If the government commits to investing in single parents’ futures, everyone benefits.So while extra investment in skills provision is important, it needs to go hand-in-hand with changes to the way the government approaches welfare-to-work policies. 

The current emphasis prioritises getting job-seeking single parents into work as quickly as possible, rather than helping them to find the right job for them. Job-seeking single parents are no longer entitled to fee remissions for their first Level 3 course. Instead they are expected to self-fund or take out a loan. Understandably single parents could feel put off by this and miss out on further education opportunities that, in the long-run, could bring them financial security and a career

That’s why in addition to funding single parents’ first Level 3 qualification, we also want Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme providers to offer more tailored support. By undertaking an early assessment of the skills of all single parents who come through their doors, Jobcentres and Work Programme providers could provide vital help in mapping out future career plans for single parents – helping them to identify the jobs that match their interests and requirements, and supporting the training opportunities that will help them realise their goals.

Short of these changes, we don’t believe any government can succeed in its ambitions to “make work pay”. Without additional qualifications, many single parents will end up in low-paid work or find themselves yo-yo-ing in and out of employment as they desperately search for that needle in a haystack job that gives them both flexible hours and a decent wage. To us it’s clear that if the government really wants to make work pay and tackle poverty, it needs to Make the Grade in providing skills and educational support for single parents. 

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Author: Matt Hawkins
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.