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Social Mobility

Volume 539: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2012

It is a pleasure to bring this debate to the House today and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh.

Social mobility, the advancement of the individual irrespective of birth, gender, colour or class, was the underlying reason I entered politics. My inspiration for that was not so much politicians, I am sorry to say, but the great industrial philanthropists of the 18th and 19th centuries, with their business ethics, worker engagement and strong principles. I grew up in Liverpool, so for me one person stood out above all others: William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers, who, incidentally, did go into politics. William started work at his father’s grocery business in Bolton, working his way up the ranks before setting up his own business. Perhaps it was that journey, from shop floor to business ownership, that shaped his outlook on life, which was that anyone could achieve, given the right support and conditions.

Lever’s belief in others and his ability to achieve inspired me, and it is that notion of support allowing social mobility that we need to engender in society, allowing for personal fulfilment and opportunities for all. Business at its best can do it, and so can politicians. That said, everyone has a role to play: parents, teachers and community leaders. All can offer support, encouragement, hope and advice. In Britain today social mobility has never been so remote for so many people, with only one in five young people from the poorest backgrounds achieving five good GCSEs including maths and English, compared with three quarters of those from the richest families. Only one in four boys from working class backgrounds gets a professional or managerial job, and just one in nine of those from low-income backgrounds reaches the top income quartile, whereas almost 50% of those with parents in the top income quartile stay there.

Such lack of social mobility is damaging for those individuals, who are never able or allowed to fulfil their potential, for their families, the community and the country. The personal waste is tragic and, in the cold light of day, to a number-crunching statistician, so is the economic waste, which must surely act as a wake-up call to politicians of all parties to do something. One study has estimated the economic benefits of creating a more highly skilled work force at £150 billion a year by 2050—an additional 4% of GDP; and there is evidence that the demand for skilled workers currently outstrips supply, so there are jobs out there at the top that cannot be filled.

I have personal knowledge on the matter in question, coming from an area where I saw only too clearly the extra hurdles that put achievement a pace or two further away from people—although I also lived among a few startling exceptions who managed to defy the odds and become socially mobile. It was for that reason that I went back to university to study corporate governance and wrote a paper on the character types and personality traits of those who succeeded, irrespective of background, as well as interviewing more than 500 school kids from tough areas, to see what support and guidance they felt they needed to succeed. I hope today that I can bring some personal knowledge to the debate.

My hon. Friend has done far more than she has said, and has produced a book, “If Chloe Can”, a careers book to help inspire people. It was turned into a theatre production, which is now touring the country, and I and several of our hon. Friends went to the premiere. I saw at first hand how many children from poorer backgrounds were inspired by the role models on stage that day, whom my hon. Friend brought along. Does she therefore agree that a key to introducing social mobility is to get great role models to inspire people and show them that people from their background can achieve success in life?

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. That was one of the key things that came up when I went round schools on Merseyside, asking children what they needed to know, and what answers they wanted. Some asked, “How did you ever know what you wanted to become?” or “How do you know what jobs and opportunities are out there?” More importantly, they said they wanted to see people like them, from their backgrounds, who had achieved. I put together a magazine and distributed it free to more than 5,000 girls in Merseyside, and the people in it were role models such as Jo Salter, the first lady from the UK to become a fighter pilot; Louise Greenhalgh, the first to become a bomb disposal officer; Debbie Moore, the first woman to set up a plc; Lucinda Ellery, a single mum of three kids who has an international company; Jayne Torvill, the ice skater; and Emily Cummins, the inventor. All those people managed to overcome personal adversity to achieve, irrespective of where they came from. That was what made me look into character types and personality traits, which seemed so much more influential on where someone ended up than background or grades. Ambition, focus, being a team player, being positive and being able to complete a task, were key, and we need to tell children about those things, which give them hope. They do not need to know that they came from a certain background. They need to know that they need inner strength to achieve.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. I hope she will comment on social mobility for people who are disabled, and on the need for public transport to enable them to go where they want to be. Does she agree, and will she comment?

I will make one comment, because I worked with people who were able-bodied, and with others who were not so able-bodied. One in particular who was a huge inspiration to me was a young girl called Shelly Woods, who I hope will get an Olympic gold in the Paralympics. She was supported by other people and thought she could achieve, even though she had always wanted to do sport as an able-bodied person. She became paralysed in an accident playing hide and seek, when she fell out of a tree, and has lived both as an able-bodied person and as someone who is not able-bodied. Her story was poignant, and she talked about the vital strength and support of teachers and family members. I do not know whether I can give a clear answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point—I am sure that the Minister can—but I hear what he says; the support he speaks of is needed.

It is important to look in the round at what can be achieved. The coalition Government are doing that, because social mobility will not be achieved by a single initiative. It is a question of a host of interventions, providing small steps at various stages in someone’s life, to enable them to climb up. Social mobility appears to have stagnated in the UK in the past 30 years. Children’s educational outcomes are still overwhelmingly tied to their parents’ income. The OECD published “A Family Affair: Intergenerational Social Mobility across OECD Countries” as part of “Going for Growth 2010”; it shows the United Kingdom as among the countries where socio-economic background appears to have the largest influence on students’ performance. Although initiatives have been introduced in the past 30 years, it appears there has been little success.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing the debate to the House. Does she agree that more effort needs to be put into boosting self-confidence and self-esteem in children? As she knows, those are prerequisites for mobility, success, and the goal that she is describing. Assuming that the importance of self-confidence is accepted, does she perhaps also believe that school subjects such as music, drama, art, sport and reading out loud in class may need to be given upward value? That is not at all to put a negative slant on the baccalaureate idea or the education policies that we are putting forward, but to underline the importance of the issues in question.

I do indeed believe that self confidence is crucial. In fact, I led a debate on confidence for girls in particular. There is a lot of evidence, both academic and from Ofsted, that we need to encourage that, which is why I am so impressed with our national citizenship service in which kids from all backgrounds come together to get involved in team play and outdoor pursuits. The 30 children from the Wirral who participated last year said that it was a life-changing experience and that it really boosted their confidence. Yes, confidence needs to be developed both inside and outside school.

We need to look at social mobility as a whole and consider the various interventions that can be made over a life cycle. I welcome the fact that the social justice agenda and the social mobility agenda have come together with an emphasis on fairness and life fairness. Family support and support growing up are crucial.

The Department for Communities and Local Government found that 120,000 families in England have complex social, health and economic problems and it has designated an early family intervention programme. Yes, I know that it will cost £448 million to support such families, but it is in an attempt to break up a never-ending cycle of dependency and under-achievement that ultimately costs the country £9 billion a year. We therefore have not only the evidence to show that we need to take up such a programme to help the lives of people, which so often can be forgotten when we look at numbers, but the economic imperative to ensure that we push it through.

Does my hon. Friend agree that even beyond the 120,000 most troubled families throughout our society, the gap between rich and poor appears by the age three, which puts into sharp relief the need for support for parenting in the family?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. The coalition Government are right to introduce new nursery care for toddlers. There will be 15 hours of free early education a week for all two-year-olds from poor homes, which will help 240,000 disadvantaged children. The pupil premium for disadvantaged children in England’s schools will be worth £600 per pupil per year.

Today, I want to dwell on the sciences not just because the Minister for Universities and Science is present but because it is a passion of mine. An education in the sciences can promote social mobility. As chair of the Chemical Industries Association, I hear on a daily basis about the need for more science students, technicians, engineers and scientists. The jobs are there, but we do not have the children to fill them. Moreover, they are high-paying, life-long jobs with futures. Only last week, I was promoting science in schools with the Chemical Industry Education Centre and one of the companies present admitted that it had taken on 10 post-graduate chemistry places, and, sadly, only one of them went to somebody from the UK—such is the lack of those in the UK with suitable qualifications.

I hear such stories on a weekly and even a daily basis. People comment not just about what is happening on the jobs front but about science education itself. David Braben, who is known for computer games such as Elite and Rollercoaster Tycoon, said:

“We have become a nation of consumers rather than creators in terms of technology in education, and this has implications further down the line.”

Eric Schmidt of Google had a withering summation of the British system, saying that it has forgone teaching computer programmes in schools. He said:

“I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools...Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”

The president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Moshe Kam, said that there were systematic failures in the UK education system, which has serious knock-on effects for the economy.

The fact that our nation, which created and advanced the computer, has now become a nation of consumers is absolutely outrageous. Therefore, how we teach the subject is vital, which is why I welcome the determination of the Secretary of State for Education to have five core subjects taught to everyone in school. We have to start off by pushing five core subjects to everybody from every background, and not just to those who come from a slightly wiser professional background. There must be an imperative in the school system.

I know that my hon. Friend is a doughty fighter on this subject. Does she remember from our conversations after her “Workhouse to Westminster” paper that I too can claim to have descended from people who were in a workhouse? On the issue of the E-bac, she is right to say that we must ensure that we spread these core subjects as widely as possible. However, does she also agree that we must accept that a lot of these kids who will take on these subjects go back to very disturbed backgrounds and difficult home lives? They do not get the same support that someone in a more middle class school might get. We must be careful about what we wish for and we must ensure that proper support is available to those kids to do their best in those subjects.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. We must ensure that we give those children the support that they need. I am delighted with the new university technical colleges that Lord Baker, Lord Adonis and Peter Mitchell are fighting for because they could provide people with a startling difference in their life. The timetable starts at 8.30 in the morning and ends at 5 o’clock. It does not matter whether someone comes from a difficult background or has a difficult home life, because they do their homework in school.

I know so many bright children who need an application for their education. For so long, we have learned a subject in isolation without really knowing where it is going. The university technical colleges are addressing that issue. Yes, they are academic, which is excellent, but the fact that they have a longer day and a longer week means that the pupils will have 30% extra time to do projects for companies and to mix with people whom they had never mixed with before, which goes back to the issue of those vital real life role models.

I am glad that we are at last having a discussion about going to university and encouraging people to ask, “Is that really best for me or is an apprenticeship better? Do I really need to get a job?” The Office for National Statistics reports that we now have more than 1.3 million graduates who earn less than the average wage for someone who has been educated to A-level standard. Did university really benefit those people, or did they feel pushed into going to university by quotas for schools? Did a lack of knowledge lead them on to that journey to university? Did university support them in the way that it should?

According to the recruitment agency Adecco, one in five employers says that school leavers make better workers than university graduates. It is crucial to be able to stop for just a second and think, “What is it that I want out of life? What can I do and have the support there?” We should not limit our options at a young age because we did not take the subjects that we would need later on in life. When I was at school, if we did not know what to do, our teachers would say, “Study science for as long as you can because you can do anything with a science O-level”— I am giving my age away now. If youngsters study science at GCSE or A-level, they can always do something. By the way, the lynchpin is chemistry, which is something that we are not always told.

University technical colleges are brilliant. I have read the JCB college booklet and seen what the very first university technical college in Staffordshire is doing. For the children, the experience has been life changing. Some were not doing well in school and feel that they have been given a second opportunity. A life sciences university technical college is coming to north Liverpool, which is associated with the university of Liverpool. Therefore, it will be linked with the university and with business, including Unilever, Novartis, Redx Pharma, Bristol Myers Squibb and Provexis. Hot on the heels of the Liverpool university technical college will be the Wirral university technical college. [Interruption.] I notice that the Minister is smiling there. All that is key.

I want to mention, as an aside, the significant effect that Brian Cox has had on the uptake of physics and maths, so much so that the president of the Institute of Physics, Professor Sir Peter Knight, has talked about the Cox effect. He has inspired new physicists and new mathematicians, so much so that applications to Surrey university this year for physics have gone up by 40%. I mention that because how we communicate our message is key. Brian Cox had a platform: television and the media. People found him exciting, innovative and interesting, and they went and did it.

Order. It is entirely up to the hon. Lady for how long she speaks, but there is only 10 minutes left for this debate, and she may want to leave some time for the Minister.

Thank you, Mr Leigh, for pointing that out. I am just about to come to my questions.

I want to know about our communication strategy. How are we going to reach out to the kids whom we want to help and support, not just to the people who are already going to get it? It is key that we talk about it not only in policy—it is not just about words, but about deeds and actions. I want to mention the Speaker, who will hold an event for me on social mobility tonight, for 150 different people who have all turned their lives around, from business, drama and the arts. He is also giving Back Benchers a voice—he has introduced the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme, in which 10 people from different backgrounds are having a new look on life. I have one, and I want him to be known here: Luke Shaw Harvey from Stoke. He is working with me, and I think it is important.

How will we co-ordinate what we are doing? How are we following it through? How are we looking at the impact? What is our media strategy? How are we going to promote science to children? I see science as a great enabler for everyone. What are our careers advice and opportunities? How will we know about and promote the success stories, so that they are part of the cycle of social mobility?

Thank you, Mr Leigh, for protecting the Government’s interests by giving me an opportunity to respond to the large number of extremely pertinent questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey). We all know how committed she personally is to the cause of social mobility. I have read the accounts of “If Chloe Can”, and clearly that is exactly the type of initiative that is needed to raise aspirations and for young people to know what they can achieve regardless of their background, and I congratulate her on that.

I also welcome the interventions from my hon. Friends. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility, and it is great to see him present in the Chamber. My hon. Friends the Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) also made important interventions. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole suggested the exciting sub-heading of “Workhouse to Westminster”—it is good to see that the Minister responsible for the workhouse, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has just arrived in the Chamber. “Workhouse to Westminster” is the motif for our debate today.

The challenge that we have in improving social mobility, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West painted vividly, is one that the coalition is committed to addressing. Probably the most important single document in which we have set out our policies is “Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility”, which was published last April. It had the important feature of tackling all the different stages of a life cycle, and it showed that at each stage, we had to raise our performance. We have already heard, from the interventions, about the importance of the early years, and we recognise that. That is why we are committed to a new entitlement of 15 hours a week of free early education for two-year-olds, in order to try to tackle the problem in that area.

Coming to school years, the coalition is delivering the pupil premium, which for next year will be worth £600 a year for pupils from tougher backgrounds. The excellent free schools policy is already working, with new free schools being set up. Rising to my hon. Friend’s specific challenge of communication, we also have “Speakers for Schools” and a related programme, “Inspiring Futures”, which aim to get 100,000 people into schools and colleges to talk about their jobs and career routes. The challenge is not just about aspiration—sometimes people have the aspiration, but they do not know how to fulfil their aspiration or understand the routes to get from where they are to what they want to be. Having people who have taken a route through to achieving their ambition in a certain career arrive in a school or college to describe it with practical examples is important to tackle the communication challenge that she identified.

I recognise that universities, which are my particular responsibility, are only one of the routes into a well-paid job, a career and a fulfilling life. It is equally important that people have the opportunity of apprenticeships, which is why the coalition is delivering 100,000 extra apprenticeships. We have achieved that in our first year, and with the excellent leadership of my colleague, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), we are ahead of that target; we will deliver even more.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West asked about universities. One of the encouraging things about universities is that whereas in the earlier stages of the education process, people from disadvantaged backgrounds, sadly, fall further and further behind, getting to university is the first stage of the process in which it looks as if—the evidence is controversial, but I think the majority of evidence is pretty clear on this—young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds over-achieve compared with others. It is the first stage in which instead of falling further behind, they start catching up. That is why it is important that we do everything we can to ensure access to university, which the coalition is committed to.

Although the decision to go to university or not has to be for an individual, and we want more information for young people as they make their choice, so that they can decide whether going is the right thing for them, nevertheless, I offer to my hon. Friend some figures: on average, graduates earn £32,000 a year, while on average, non-graduates earn £19,000 a year. The averages are pretty compelling.

My hon. Friend referred particularly to science and asked me what we could do on that. There is an excellent initiative of STEMNET ambassadors. These are people who have made practical careers in the sciences, who may have built up a business or may be working as scientists. There are 28,000 of them, 40% of whom are women; it is important to get the gender mix. Again, they go around to schools, science fairs and elsewhere to explain what they have achieved as engineers, scientists or managers, drawing on their expertise and communicating it to young people.

There was an intervention particularly about disabled people. While we sometimes focus exclusively on social background and access to university, we have made it clear in the letters that we have sent to the Office for Fair Access that it should look at other things as well. One that we specifically identified is proper arrangements for disabled students, so that they have an opportunity to learn and do not suffer from excessive drop-out rates.

My hon. Friend also talked about other examples of what could be achieved. She was right to refer to the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme. It is important that people have a fair opportunity of internships. We are clear that if young people are in employment, they should be properly paid for it. The Government attach a lot of importance to that.

As well as the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme, we should also remember—I suspect that this also applies to several Members present—the Social Mobility Foundation, which also finances people to come to work in the House of Commons if they would not otherwise have been able to afford to do so.

The lesson that the coalition takes from the debate is that yes, we need to intervene at every stage of the life cycle: early years, school, apprenticeships, university and opportunities afterwards. However, nothing beats the personal experience of seeing people who have overcome barriers. What my hon. Friend describes and promotes, not least through the excellent play to which she referred earlier, is fundamental to providing young people with opportunities. I very much support and welcome the efforts that she is personally making.