The Great Leap Backwards

Professor Dame Margaret Whitehead gives the 2019 Sidney Ball Lecture

This year’s Sidney Ball Memorial lecture was the first in a new collaboration with St John’s College, who were excellent hosts for this popular event on a wintry night in November. After introductions, Professor Dame Margaret Whitehead launched into her case for why questions of child poverty still matter – there is abundant evidence of worsening health outcomes as child poverty increases. There has been a good degree of international consensus on what is needed in social policy to tackle these issues, but, Professor Whitehead argued, ‘the gains of the past are now being undone.’

She took us through a series of steps to show that the UK has seen an increase in child poverty from 2012 onwards. Substantial research is underway to measure and predict the impact of austerity measures on children, both at the national and local levels. There is emerging evidence from trends in local authority expenditure that disadvantaged areas are suffering more. In consequence, we see a very concerning unravelling of child health, as shown in iconic health indicators such as infant mortality.

Professor Whitehead then addressed the key question in response to this ‘great leap backwards’ – what can policy researchers do? She called for the systematic assessment of impact of policies on different groups in the population, so that differential impact can be established. With this evidence, researchers need to go the extra mile to find effective and innovative places to present their findings to inform policy-making. She cited recent examples where this approach has had a positive impact, such as evidence to help the Department of Communities and Local Government review their resource allocation formula. She reminded us of our place in the great tradition of using research to help the poorest in society, looking back to Sidney Ball himself, Violet Butler, and many more figures in the history of this department.

Many thanks to Professor Whitehead for her insightful and engaging lecture, and to St John’s College for their warm welcome. We look forward to next autumn’s lecture, which will mark the centenary of the first Sidney Ball Memorial Lecture.