Thursday 28 June 2012
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Stephen Crabb)
It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to see you in the Chair. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate on a subject that matters a great deal to many hon. Members—and, indeed, brought many hon. Members into politics, directly or indirectly.
There are many aspects to social mobility, and I am sure that hon. Members will pursue different angles. I want to focus on some of the material in the report of the all-party group on social mobility, “Seven Key Truths about Social Mobility”. We formed the group a year ago, and I thank the many hon. Members and outside organisations that have come to our sessions and contributed to the debate.
I also thank the group’s officers, particularly the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), who is detained in the Finance Bill Committee, and the noble Lady, Baroness Tyler. She is not taking part in this debate, for obvious reasons, but I am pleased to see that she is here. I also thank the Prince’s Trust, which provides great support to our group.
We did not seek to carry out primary research, or to espouse a load of opinions, but to synthesise the material, data, statistics and intelligence on social mobility. We always knew that, coming as we do from different political traditions, it was exceedingly unlikely that we would end up agreeing on policy prescriptions, but we thought we could agree on what we disagree on, to focus the debate.
Politicians sometimes know what needs to be done, but large challenges remain for implementation. However, sometimes they do not know what needs to be done, and no one does. I want to present some of those challenges. Unlike in other debates, I will not shout out a list of demands for the Government, or ask to know about this and that. In many cases that is more of an acknowledgement of the gaps that exist and where, as a society and a political system, we need to build up the approach.
Social mobility clearly matters, and from an economist’s perspective, it matters in terms of both equity and efficiency. To put that into better terminology, it matters for social justice and for economic growth. It is self-evident that every person should be able to achieve their potential and to become fulfilled, but from the economic growth perspective, national income maximisation requires the best deployment of resources. As a nation, we cannot afford to have talent going to waste and not providing all it can.
Studies suggest that reaching international benchmarks on social mobility could be worth around £150 billion per annum on national income, or the equivalent of a one-off increase in gross domestic product of 4%. Today, we are far away from those benchmarks. There are various studies comparing social mobility in Britain with other countries with liberal democracies and advanced economies. In those studies, we are near or very near the bottom of the list. What is worse and more depressing is that that has not improved. Today’s 40-somethings, such as me, have shown less mobility on average than today’s 50-somethings. In an advanced country such as ours, we would expect social mobility to be improving every year, even if it was difficult to catch up.
Social mobility is not one subject, but three, and we tried to bring that out in our report. If two people discuss social mobility, they may leave thinking that they had agreed, and that the other person was talking about the same thing, but it often turns out that they were talking about two completely different aspects. The three subjects are three degrees of intensity, or three types of challenge.
At one end is the “breaking out” category of people who are trapped in poverty or difficult circumstances for one reason or another, and need help to access mainstream society and opportunities. At the other end of the spectrum is the category, “stars to shine”, with outstanding talent that we must ensure fulfils its potential. In the middle is everyone else, and they are the ones who are often forgotten. They are the 60%, 70% or 80% of the population who are neither severely disadvantaged nor outstandingly talented, and they are the greatest number of people.
To bring those categories to life a little, I will explain how they interact with different policy issues. With early years and the moving on up category, which includes the vast majority of children, early-years settings and their quality, and general parenting programmes, are relevant. But to address the problems in the breaking out group requires a lot more action, starting with high-intensity parenting support programmes, and, in the most extreme cases, child protection.
During the school years of the breaking out group, children must be exposed to opportunities so that they have aspiration to fulfil their potential. Children in care have a particularly difficult time in the school system, and relatively poor levels of educational attainment. Talking about grammar schools to that group is supremely irrelevant, but for a relatively small group, grammar schools, selective education, assisted places and so on are relevant. Those children are in the stars to shine category.
That is the horizontal axis and those are the different degrees of challenge. On the vertical axis, we have seven key truths. Those are not my seven key truths, or those of the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles. They emerged from the expert witnesses we heard from. One may write one’s own list with a different emphasis, but we have run our list past quite a lot of people, and no one has said it is wrong, so we have some confidence that they really are seven key truths about social mobility.
First, the point of greatest leverage is what happens between the ages of 0 and 3, right at the start of life. That means primarily at home. Secondly, the cycle may be broken through education. Thirdly, the single most important controllable factor in education is the quality of teachers and teaching. Fourthly, what happens not just at school, but after the school bell rings—in the evenings and at weekends and in the holidays—is relevant.
Fifthly, university is the most important swing factor of achievements later in life. Pre-18 attainment dictates whether someone gets there, so pre-18 attainment is key. Sixthly, people should not give up, because it is possible to get back on the ladder and to go up it. Later pathways to mobility are possible as long as the will and the support are there. Seventhly, personal resilience and emotional well-being are the missing link in the chain, and permeate those different levels and life stages.
I believe that the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles will talk about what happens after the school bell rings, and about opportunities later in life. I will talk briefly about the early years and what happens at school. I am a member of the Select Committee on Education, and it is remarkable that whenever one talks to people in education, they always blame the stage before—employers blame the colleges, universities blame the secondary schools, secondary schools blame the primary schools, and the primary schools blame the nursery schools. It is sometimes comic, because it can sometimes be predicted when that sentence will come into the conversation. However, there is an element of truth in it, which is why we said that the 0-3 life stage is the point of greatest leverage.
We have all seen the famous Leon Feinstein graph. It shows, if children’s cognitive ability is measured in the early years of life, that bright children from poor backgrounds are overtaken by less bright children from wealthy backgrounds and it is quite depressing. More recently, there has been an acceptance that that analysis has perhaps been a little over-egged and overused, but it is not totally invalidated. The central message remains: we must nurture and support families with children when they are at a very young age in order for them to reach their potential at primary school. I am talking about children being able to access the curriculum, to read and so on.
In that regard, we should welcome a number of things that the previous Government did and that the current Government have done or are doing. I am thinking of the Sure Start programme, the 12.5 hours of free care from the previous Government and, under the current Government, the keeping of the extension to 15 hours and, critically, the extension to disadvantaged two-year-olds.
However, there is something slightly depressing about all this. If we look at what I call “the Sure Start generation”, the millennium cohort—children born in 2000—we see that there has not been the narrowing of the gap between the rich and poor that, other things being equal, we would expect to see. That was one of the purposes of Sure Start in this country, as it was for the Head Start programme—a remarkably similar name—in the United States.
The standard explanation is that we are just not reaching the right families; we are not going to the places where the need is greatest. I praise certain Sure Start centres, which do outstanding outreach work, including, by the way, in my own constituency. I also welcome the current Government’s refocusing of efforts within Sure Start on the neediest families. However, it seems a little too neat to say that the gap has not narrowed only because we have not reached the places where the need is greatest. We must also consider what happens in early-years settings. The review of the early-years foundation stage is welcome, but we should not regard the job as done. We need to have a constant feedback loop of learning from what works best at all stages of education and care.
However, there is a bigger challenge yet, and that is the work force. Cathy Nutbrown’s recent report states:
“It must be a cause for concern that early years courses are often the easiest to enrol on and the courses that the students with the poorest academic records are sometimes steered towards.”
I will not argue that nursery care should be yet another “graduatised” profession, as some probably would, but we do have a work force challenge and one that it is too easy to duck or ignore. We are talking about the care of our children. We know that the countries least marred by social immobility tend to be those that have invested quite heavily in work force development at early-years level.
However, all that is comfort zone stuff compared with the really big challenge. Unless we are to accept that the age at which children go into a state care setting should get younger and younger and that the number of children doing that should get bigger and bigger, eventually we have to conclude that the point of greatest leverage—zero to three—happens mostly at home. That, of course, is painfully difficult territory for the state.
We know the things that make the difference: a healthy pregnancy, early attachment, a good diet, warm relationships, having books at home, being read to, spending time with the telly off and so on. We need to start by considering how to maximise the leverage from existing successful programmes. That involves health visitors, whose numbers are currently being expanded, but also programmes such as Bookstart and voluntary organisations such as Home Start and the great work that it does.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) may take part in the debate later and, if so, will probably talk about parent-infant partnership programmes, such as OXPIP, the Oxford Parent Infant Project, and NorPIP, the Northamptonshire Parent Infant Partnership, and some of the great work that they do on early attachment.
I welcome the support from the Government for expansion of the family-nurse partnership programme. That is a great evidence-based programme, although I think that there some concerns in the field that the family-nurse partnership is based on the American—and confusingly named—nurse-family partnership. The family-nurse partnership is almost the same as the nurse-family partnership, but not quite. We must ensure that when we have these evidence-based programmes, they are truly following the pure model. Again, as with early-years settings, we need a constant feedback loop of learning—a repository for the knowledge of what works with these programmes. That is why it is important to aspire to something along the lines of the early intervention foundation recommended by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen).
However, just finding successful programmes is not enough. Quite often, the most successful programmes are, sadly, also the most costly, and quite often we have local programmes that work well on a small scale but may not be scalable to cope with much greater case loads. Often, too, it is the third and fourth quintiles—the families who do not have advantages but do not have severe disadvantages either—that get insufficient attention. We need affordable mass programmes that can address and help very large numbers of families. The five a day for child development programme recently recommended by CentreForum is very interesting in that regard.
Although zero to three may be the point of greatest leverage, thankfully it is not the end of the story. At school, great differences can be made to social mobility, because although statistically we see a link between parents’ income and social class and children’s income and social class, it is not actually a direct link. The links are, first, between parents’ income and social class and children’s educational attainment, and secondly, between children’s educational attainment and their own eventual income and social class. If we can break that loop and get kids from poorer backgrounds and more difficult backgrounds achieving well at school, it is perfectly possible to have outstanding social mobility.
The pupil premium, a great innovation from the Government, is a very important step, but of course it does not give the answer, only space and opportunity for the answer. It is critical to know how schools, and the education system more widely, should spend money for maximum impact. Therefore, I welcome very much the work of the Education Endowment Foundation and the Government’s support for it, and the fact that Ofsted will in future be measuring how schools are using the funds. I also welcome the Sutton Trust toolkit of strategies for effective learning, which goes through in some detail individual programmes and initiatives that work in schools to narrow the gap between rich and poor.
Policy makers have to be brave and willing to take on and explode myths that for politicians are difficult to talk about—in particular, for example, on class size. There really is not any evidence that over the relevant range, reducing class sizes helps either average attainment or in terms of narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Obviously, it does at a certain point—when we are talking about 12 kids in a class—but not over the relevant range.
The single most important factor is not how many people the person at the front of the class has in their class, but who that person is; the issue is about teachers and teaching. We recently had a Select Committee inquiry. It was going to be called “What Makes a Great Teacher?” but obviously when the Committee got hold of it, we made the title much duller; it was something like “attracting, retaining, developing”—and something else—“teachers”.
What came up time and again was the importance of great teachers and great teaching. We know it when we see it. The problem is that it is very difficult to see it and know it before the teacher is already in the school and teaching. That is why one of our recommendations was to make auditioning for teaching much more prevalent before people take on teacher training.
We also said that it is too high stakes a profession in many ways. Once someone has made the commitment to do a postgraduate certification in education or a three or four-year BEd, they have basically committed themselves to following that career for life. That puts off some people, who would be outstanding teachers, from coming into the profession, but it probably also traps some people in the profession, once they have committed that time and money. In most other careers these days, people’s expectation is that they might do it for two years, five years or 10 years, but not necessarily for 30 years.
It is often said that no one forgets a great teacher, and that is true. Sadly, it is also true that most of us can also remember one or two pretty rubbish ones. As well as attracting the best teachers into teaching, we must take on the task of raising the average quality of the teachers who are already there. I repeat that most are outstanding, but we must look afresh at continuing professional development and at helping teachers with later-in-life career choices if teaching is ultimately not for them.
The individual child needs to be inspired to aspire, which is where careers advice becomes so important. It is worth saying that I did not hear many good things said about Connexions until there was talk of change, when suddenly it became the best thing ever invented. There has never been a golden age of careers advice in schools. Most people, whether they are 30, 40, 50 or 70, will relate the time when they were advised to become a florist, a caterer for the RAF or something very unlike what they ended up doing.
I do not know about other Members, but when I was 13 or 14, I did not know what I wanted to do—well, I thought I knew, but I was wrong about what I would end up doing; I have not totally given up on being a rock star though, so we will see how it goes. Often, the best advice is to keep your options open, so subject choice is an important consideration.
The English baccalaureate has its fans and critics, but it has clearly demonstrated that it can steer young people towards qualifications and subjects that keep their options most open. I remain concerned about A-levels in that regard. We have the list of the facilitating A-level subjects from the Russell group—the ones that it, to paraphrase, takes seriously in university admissions.
When I meet very bright young people in my constituency and elsewhere, I get depressed when I ask, “What subjects are you doing?” and they reply, “Physics, chemistry and law” or “Physics, chemistry and music technology” and so on. Too many young people are effectively self-selecting out of Russell group-type institutions, even though they clearly have the intelligence to be admitted. What, along E-bac lines, could be done about that at A-level?
University is the single biggest determinant in career progression in later life, and of course attainment is key to that. Much is made of the fact that although only 7% of kids attend private schools, they make up 17% of students at Russell group universities and 34% at Oxbridge. The figures are a tiny bit misleading, however, because that 7% refers to an average across all ages. If we take only the young people between the ages of 16 and 18 studying A-levels, the figure almost doubles to 13%. Of those who have passed three A-levels at grade C or above, it goes up further to 19%. For a subject combination such as maths, physics and chemistry, it is 27%.
If we ask what percentage of kids who get three As or A*s are at private school, I am afraid that the answer is 32%, which is knocking on the door of that 34% Oxbridge figure and well above the Russell group figure. There is clearly a big challenge. As part of that, and as only a part of it, we cannot dodge—as much as we, as politicians, might like to—the stars to shine question in secondary education on how we nurture outstanding talent.
The grammar schools debate is divisive. Many right hon. and hon. Members are former grammar school children, which is perhaps unsurprising given the numbers and the age profile in the House. What is more surprising is the number of people who say, “I was at a grammar school and I do not think that I would be here today had I not been”. The abolition of grammar schools was certainly well intentioned and something for which there has been consensus, implicit or explicit, across the House.
Grammar schools were better funded and in better buildings and so on than secondary moderns. There is concern that in doing away with that inequality, another inequality widened between the families who could afford to send their children to private schools and those who could not. In reality, it is not a binary question; academic tailoring is a continuum on which selection at 11 is one extreme and generic mixed-ability teaching is the other, but along the way is setting, streaming, enrichment programmes, specialisation at 14 and different types of GCSEs and so on.
When people say, “I’d like my children to go to a grammar school”, they really mean, and if you prompt them they will say, “I want my children to go to a grammar school, where the head teacher knows all the children’s names, where the teachers wear suits, and where if I walk along the corridor with a teacher and they see a piece of litter, they stoop to pick it up.”
Such things are replicable, but the tragedy is that in far too many schools we are not delivering. I would not want selection to come back to the town I live, for example; there are two outstanding secondary schools, and it would be divisive were one to be a secondary modern and the other a grammar. More widely, and particularly in a world where we have great and increasing diversity in educational provision, there could be a place, across a wider area and in every major conurbation, for an academically selective school alongside a school that specialised in sport or music and so on.
I am taking too long, so I shall accelerate and finish. We also wanted to talk in our report about the things that we do not know, and I will end on that point. We were pleased to mark down all the things that we could say, but it became abundantly clear that critical information is missing from the debate on social mobility, starting with information on innate ability.
With social mobility, we are clearly talking about equalising chances for young people and trying to hold everything else constant. It would be intellectually crazy to suggest that there was no innate ability—in other words, inherited intelligence. There is clearly some, but if we ask academics how much of a child’s ability is nature and how much is nurture—innate versus developed—they tend to say that it is somewhere between 25% and 75%. That is a huge range with which to deal, and although we will never have certainty, a little more direction on how much there is to go after would be useful.
We know that what happens out of school matters at least as much as what happens in school. When we push people to say what they would do in terms of out-of-school activities to equalise opportunities for poorer kids versus richer kids, however, they do not seem to know. They know that there are successful activities, but not quite what they are or, most importantly, how to make people do them. We frequently find that opportunities are made available in the most challenging areas, but the take-up is very small.
We are told repeatedly that non-academic skills, such as leadership, teamwork and customer empathy, are at least as important as academic achievement—the so-called non-cognitive skills. If we push people to name a non-cognitive skill and tell us how to develop it and what would be on the course, everybody dries up a little. It is a generic concept, so more clarity on what those skills are, and which ones we should develop and how, would be welcome indeed.
This vital issue has a great deal of focus and attention in the public sphere. I welcome the appointment of Alan Milburn to the new commission with Neil O’Brien as his deputy. It will give great focus and direction. I also welcome the close attention of the Government and Ministers and the involvement of the Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science. He is probably the one person who could possibly answer across the range of subject material.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the time for this debate. At that point, I will stop.
It is a pleasure to be in Westminster Hall this afternoon with you, Mr Hollobone, as our Chair. I first thank the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for his tour de force on the interim report of the all-party group on social mobility. He illustrated not only the depth of his knowledge, but his personal commitment to and passion for the issue.
There are some issues in Parliament on which we take dramatically opposing views. We argue our corners and have some pretty intense disagreements. I am happy to say that that is not the case in the all-party group. That is an important point when we talk about social mobility, because social mobility matters to every Member of Parliament and every family in our constituencies. Yes, we will have different approaches and different policy prescriptions, but the absolute imperative is to ensure that we are utilising the skills, the talents, the passion and the commitment of everybody in our community, not just for their own personal fulfilment but for the competitiveness and the ability of our economy to thrive.
The hon. Member for East Hampshire has given us a really good overview of the subject, so I will concentrate on just a few of the issues. The all-party group discovered that opportunities outside school, such as those to widen networks, make connections and meet people that we would not normally meet, are key to raising ambition and aspiration, especially among young people; and that social mobility and the ability to get on does not stop at school, college or university. There is the opportunity for second chances and third chances. We must never write people off and say that that is all they can be. There is always the chance to get on later.
I want to talk about issues of personal resilience, confidence and self-esteem, which are often well taught in independent and private education establishments but not so well taught across the state system, yet they are key to people getting on. I pay tribute to our noble friend, Baroness Tyler, who has made a personal study of the subject and has done some excellent work. The whole area has not been particularly well explored, because it is less able to be analytically dissected and it is subject to a lot of anecdotal evidence. It is a rich seam for us to pursue.
Let me explain why I feel so passionate about this issue. We all come to this with our own particular stories. Just last week, I was contacted by a young man from my constituency. He has a degree and has written 300 letters to get a job. He has not had a single interview and he is absolutely desperate to know how to take the next step in his life. I think that it was the number 300 that rang so many bells for me and brought home so many memories. I left college with a law degree. I am not sure why I studied law, but I think that it was because both my parents had left school at 14. We did not have any professional people in our family. I went to do a law degree because I thought that was how people changed the world. As a lawyer, I rapidly discovered that I certainly could not change the world; I could only interpret the law. Then I realised that if I wanted to change the world, I would have to make the law, which is why I ended up in Parliament.
When I first graduated and I had done my Law Society examinations, I wrote precisely 300 letters to try to get an interview as a trainee solicitor. As a family, we knew absolutely nobody. My dad was a factory worker, and it was when his firm got taken over by a multinational that things changed. It was through his foreman, his foreman’s boss and his boss’s boss that I managed, unbelievably, to get an interview with the best law firm in Manchester, because it held the account for the multinational company.
I went for the interview; it was probably the most frightening experience of my life. It was far worse than a constituency selection meeting. I went to the top floor of a very grand office block in the city centre. I was met by the senior partner, so it was clear that this account was a serious matter to him in terms of his fee income. He was one of those elderly gentlemen who peer over half-moon glasses. He sat in a very high chair and we commenced the interview, which went incredibly well. Amazingly, we got on. We explored all the different parts of the law. I actually had some good commercial results in my various exams and he was interested in me. We got halfway through the interview and it felt like one of those moments in life when something really exciting is going to happen. My heart was pounding and I thought, “ I’m going to get this job. I have written 300 letters, I haven’t had a single interview and I am going to get this job.” I was overcome. He said to me, “Tell me, Miss Blears, this interview is going rather well, isn’t it? We are getting along fine, aren’t we? Just remind me what your father does in the company”. I said, “My father is a fitter and he works in the factory.” With that, he closed his leather folder, and said, “Good morning, Miss Blears, I think that I have heard enough.” He showed me the door.
That was one of those defining moments in life. I left the office, got into the lift and burst into tears—not for myself particularly, although I was upset. What he had done was insult my whole family, especially my father. He had exercised the power that he had, as a very senior professional individual, over a young, powerless person. If anything drove me into the arms of the Labour party, it was probably that experience. Many of us are shaped and formed by our experiences in that way. Luckily, I managed to get my articles and became a solicitor, eventually ending up in the British Cabinet, which is a strange journey.
That story explains why I feel so passionately about this issue. There are literally hundreds of thousands of young people in our communities who are full of talent, passion and ability, and because they do not know anybody, they cannot get a foot in the door. They cannot get on that first rung of the ladder. Once we give someone a chance, it is up to them after that; they will make what they are going to make of life. It is so unfair that even today, in this country and in many other countries, it is still who we know and not what we know. Government policy is nowhere near developed enough in this area because it is so difficult.
When Labour was in government and we were formulating the future jobs fund, one of the most stunning facts that came to me was that seven out of 10 people get their next job through somebody they know. That might not be the great professional job; it might be the plasterer’s job, the joiner’s job, a small company or a job with somebody in the community. Only one or two people get their next job through the jobcentre system, so why are we not spending more of our resource on expanding people’s networks, contacts and the number of people with whom they have relationships, because that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives? Instead, a functional and structured system often operates in jobcentres, which does not necessarily give people that richness of contacts.
In the days before we had iPhones and BlackBerrys, people often said that a filofax was worth as much to them as an undergraduate degree in terms of the progress that they would make in later life. It is very often those contacts that are made, particularly in the independent school sector, that can be called up because they may know somebody who knows somebody who can help. It may be one’s parents who can help or someone in the wider family. Yet so many people do not have those contacts.
Only 7% of people go to private school, but people from private schools account for more than a third of Members of Parliament, more than half of FTSE chief executives, half of our top journalists—and that is growing at an incredible rate—and still 70% of High Court judges, so we have a long way to go before we have more of a meritocracy and before we are utilising the skills and talents of our people.
If we look at what happens outside schools, we will find that very often there is top-up tutoring, especially in more affluent families, which gives people that head start in life. The six-week summer holiday for better-off families is often devoted to enrichment activities, sports, culture, art and drama. All those activities build the key skills around resilience, self-esteem and confidence. For children from poorer families, that six-week holiday is often a nightmare. Parents cannot find child care, which leaves children to their own devices day after day after day. It is a wasted period and there is a learning loss for those poorer children who find that they have fallen behind when they return to school in September. A much more attractive proposition is shorter terms and not such long holidays so that children can keep up with their learning.
On the later paths to mobility, we have heard some good evidence from employers—from Channel 4, which runs a talent programme for paid internships and from Wates Construction, which is offering work experience, apprenticeships and that next step to young people, often from very troubled backgrounds. We have more and more employers being prepared to take the risk, which is not inconsiderable for them, to take on ex-offenders and give them a chance at that first start in life. I have worked with Morrison’s supermarket in Salford. When the store was being set up, I said that I wanted 50% of the jobs for local people from this really tough estate. It said, “We can’t do 50%, Hazel.” I said that it simply had to, and we worked with the people incredibly closely. We managed to get 82% of the jobs in that store for the people from that estate, many of whom had never worked before, never had that chance and never believed that somebody would believe in them enough to give them an opportunity. I have no doubt that those people—particularly the young people—will have their life changed as they progress through to apprenticeships and hopefully to managerial positions in the future, but unless we had put in place a programme of pre-employment training, to get them to the point where they could actually turn up for an interview and present themselves properly, they would never have had that chance. There are great employers out there that are willing to give people a chance and willing to take a risk, and we need to do more to praise and highlight the really good employers in our country that are just as motivated as we politicians are on this agenda.
I absolutely welcome Alan Milburn’s appointment to the child poverty and social mobility commission; he will be a great force for good. I have ploughed through his first report, “Fair Access to Professional Careers”, which runs to several hundred pages. It is a very good report. I was particularly struck by his phrase that
“the glass ceiling has been scratched but not broken.”
I had a vision of all these hands pushing at that ceiling, and he is right that we really need to break through it. He highlights the fact that in the professions in which he has particularly taken an interest, such as law and medicine, we are still not making sufficient progress. He points out that 40% of law graduates are from the three highest socio-economic groups and only 14% are from the three lowest socio-economic groups, and that 48% of journalism students—I am not particularly on a crusade against the press in saying this—come from the highest socio-economic groups and only 14% from the three lowest socio-economic groups. In the days when becoming a journalist meant someone getting a job on the local paper and working their way up the system, those figures were very different indeed, and if we are creating a system where journalists and—I must say— politicians are increasingly coming from a narrow background, the political discourse and dialogue becomes an internal dialogue rather than one that engages the public.
I am pleased to say that law firms are doing their bit at the moment. As a former lawyer, I hope that my experience—the experience that I referred to earlier—is never repeated. There is also the PRIME initiative—the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise—as part of which 23 top law firms and the Sutton Trust have got together. The law firms have agreed that, for each training contract that they award over the next few years, they will put in place an equivalent work experience programme for somebody from a disadvantaged background, to try to get them up to the stage where they could realistically apply for a training programme. Many of the biggest law firms are absolutely focused on that programme, and I commend them for that.
As I say, I hope that nobody else experiences what I did, although I must say that when I was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government I managed to go back to the particular law firm in question to do an event for it. The senior partner who had interviewed me had long retired, but the current senior partner was mortified when I told him my story. It was a great experience.
I want to say something about politics, because there is a problem in journalism but there is a big, big problem in politics, and we have a responsibility to try to lead on this issue. I have been particularly exercised by the increasing number of politicians who are coming into this place from what I have called a transmission belt: they work in Parliament for an MP; they become a special adviser; they are parachuted into a relatively safe seat at fairly short notice; and then they are fast-tracked into ministerial office and the Cabinet. I made a speech about this subject when I was in the Cabinet myself; I was not exactly the most popular person the next morning, as people can imagine. I said that I thought that process was bad for democracy, bad for policy making and bad for governance of the country. If everybody comes from the same background there is groupthink, and there needs to be challenge in policy making as well.
In 1979, just 3% of MPs said that they came from a political adviser-type background. According to House of Commons figures, by the last election that had risen to nearly 15%, and the Smith Institute’s latest research says that the figure is 25%. A quarter of all our MPs have come through the route that I have described and I believe that we are now creating a political elite, which makes the problem of people’s disaffection with politics ever more acute.
The Hansard Society has found that 30% of people feel completely ignored by decision makers and that 85% of people feel they have no influence over national decisions. In addition, the Speaker’s Conference found that people increasingly feel that MPs do not talk like them, do not look like them and have little connection with them.
There is something practical that we can do. For the last year, I have been working with colleagues from different parties—the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), from the Liberal Democrats, and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), from the Conservative party—and with the Speaker, to set up the Speaker’s parliamentary placements scheme. We have raised a considerable amount of money from very good companies and our first 10 people started on the scheme last year; they are just about to graduate from it now. It has been inspiring to see people coming from completely different backgrounds into Parliament. They work four days a week with an MP. On a Friday, they take part in a fantastic programme put on by the House of Commons Commission, which is about how a Bill goes through Parliament, how to do research and statistics, personal development, public speaking and going out and taking visitors around the House of Commons. It has been amazing.
The people on that scheme include James, who was an unemployed joiner in Glasgow. He could not get a job, but he was passionate about his politics. He spent 10 months with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. We have also had Matthew, a young man from Northern Ireland, who is a passionate Conservative. He spent time here and—fingers crossed—I think that he is about to get a full-time job with an MP, and if so his life will be very different in the future.
We are just about to open our recruitment for the second year of the scheme. So, if there is anybody out there who reads Hansard and thinks they would like to come into Parliament from a very different background to others, bringing something to our life here that helps to leaven the mix of people who might think about going into politics, I urge them to get in touch with the Social Mobility Foundation, which runs the scheme on our behalf. Equally, I say to MPs that if they are interested in taking one of these young people into their office and giving them the chance to see that politics really makes a difference, that is something practical that we can do about improving social mobility.
As I say, the Speaker’s scheme has been amazing. I did not think that it would actually get off the ground, but I hope that we now have some sustainability for the future. I am delighted to say that after I challenged the Deputy Prime Minister in our debate on his social mobility strategy—in which he mentioned our scheme without actually having given any money to it—he has now decided to commission a few places for people from low-income backgrounds who also have particular disabilities, and who therefore would perhaps find it doubly difficult to come and work here in Parliament. We are delighted to ensure that we can attract people to come along. That is the first bit of Government investment and I hope that we will see more of it in the future.
That is our national scheme. I just want to mention briefly one thing that I am doing in my local area. Like most MPs, I think that if we talk about national politics it is incumbent upon us to try to ensure that we do something practical—something that works—at a local level too. In Salford, we have set up a scheme called Kids without Connections, because I am getting so many young people now, such as the young man who wrote to me and said that he had applied for 300 jobs, who come to me and say, “You’re my last resort, Hazel. What can I do?” Like most MPs, I have very good contacts with the employers in my constituency: in construction; in retail; in hospitality; in catering; and in the public sector. We have now had a big event with all of our employers. We have 70 employers registered that are all prepared to give work experience to young people in my constituency, so that those young people can do two, three or perhaps four weeks of work experience over the summer. I have 150 young people who have volunteered. We are now doing what I suppose is the “speed dating”, which is matching the employers and the young people. We already have had a dozen jobs being offered—not just work experience placements, but a dozen real jobs—as a result of the programme. When the young people have done their work experience, the employers and the young people will come to Parliament for a reception, to celebrate their working together and to get an experience of Parliament.
That scheme is a very simple one and if anyone else is interested in the practicalities of making such a scheme happen, I must say that at least it gives the young people involved a taste of work and what it is like to be in an employment environment. Once again, it ensures that they will not simply settle and accept that their life will never be any different. That is something practical that we can do, and I pay tribute to Charlotte Chinn, who has been amazing in helping to make that scheme happen in my constituency. Supporting it is one of the most inspiring things that I do.
The final practical thing that I want to do is to mention an organisation called Future First; some Members might know about it already. It is relatively new, having been going now for a couple of years. What it tries to do is to set up—a very complicated phrase—“alumni networks for state schools”. In the private education sector, alumni networks are automatic. Current students at a school know the students who were there before them. Former students raise money, act as mentors or role models, come in and share their experiences at the school and consequently they enrich the school’s curriculum. That has never happened in state schools. But for the last couple of years, Future First has been organising programmes across London and they now want to expand across the country. What those programmes do is to track former pupils—using Facebook or Friends Reunited—to see whether they would be willing to come back into their former school, to share their experiences with the current students and act as role models. Amazingly, 30% of former pupils have said that they would love to do that. That is a potential resource of up to 10 million people in this country who would come back and be role models for state school students in the future.
I was struck by what one of the students said:
“In private schools, they’re told that they can conquer the world, they’re given motivation, they’re told they can win. We’re not told that in state schools so it’s harder for us”.
That is absolutely what it is like. Luckily, when I was growing up, my mum said, “You work hard: the world’s your oyster. You can be anything. You can do anything in the world.” If people do not have that push behind them from home, and do not get it in the school they attend, it is much more difficult to have the ambition and aspiration that will take them on their journey. The work that Future First does is incredibly valuable, and we have a huge untapped resource that we could draw on, to make the situation very different. As ever, we have a problem, but I like to think of practical solutions that we can bring to bear. I am sure that the Minister will be in the same place. It is important to have some programmes to point to that are making a difference, and try to scale them up.
I have been lucky in my life. I have met people at important points, who have guided me and shaped my life. They have encouraged me to do different things. For that I am incredibly grateful. Some of them were inspirational teachers who made a connection with their students and gave them a broader outlook on life. Some were people I met at work, and some were friends and family. I worry enormously, however, that many young people do not have that in their lives, and that their talents go to waste. I do not think we can allow that.
I have a couple of questions to which I would like the Minister’s response. First, what action is he taking to widen the networks of people from the poorest backgrounds? If we have any money to spend—and I know it is tight—I want it to be spent in a way that gets results, rather than on sustaining a system that does not really achieve.
I am very concerned about the advertising of unpaid internships. I do not mean four or six weeks’ work experience, but full-time jobs, where people are expected to turn up and do a series of proper tasks, and take on responsibilities, but get no pay. That is illegal in this country, and people with such jobs must be paid the minimum wage. Yet it is still lawful to advertise those unpaid, full-time, long term internships. That is a mismatch. If something is unlawful it should not be lawful to advertise it. I should like to hear the Minister’s response. Will he support more robust enforcement with respect to unlawful, unpaid internships, so that employers must pay the national minimum wage as they should?
Will he also support the establishment of alumni networks? I know that some money has been granted from the Cabinet Office social action fund, which is welcome, but it would be a practical and cheap way of making a difference.
Finally, will the Minister recognise some of the great employers that I have met in the past year, primarily through the Speaker’s placement scheme? The people who help and support us include Morrison’s supermarkets, Prudential, AXA, Aviva, the Royal Mail and Clifford Chance—every spectrum of corporate life. They are just as passionate about what we are doing as we are, and they make a difference. We should thank them and encourage others to take part too.
I thank the debate’s two sponsors for opening the batting. I thought it might be helpful if I ran through how the debate will proceed. It must close at 5.30. The Opposition spokesman, Shabana Mahmood, will be called no later than 4.55, to speak for 15 minutes. The Minister will be called no later than 5.15, to speak for 15 minutes, and then Damian Hinds has two minutes to wind up.
Between now and the speech of Shabana Mahmood, there are seven hon. Members who have said they want to speak. That would give each of them 12 to 13 minutes. The running order will be Mark Garnier, Meg Hillier, Mark Pawsey, Mike Crockart, Jackie Doyle-Price, Kelvin Hopkins and Martin Vickers.
That may all change at 4 o’clock when the Chair changes, but until then that is going to be the order.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on securing this important debate. The right hon. Lady will be delighted to hear that I have no background in politics, but may be disappointed that prior to coming to this place I was a hedge fund manager and investment banker. However, as a result, I tend to view my work here, and the world, through a financial prism. It is in that context that I want to speak this afternoon about social mobility and financial education.
Something that has struck me since I have been in this place is that when we consider education we still mean reading, writing and arithmetic, and how important it is to go to university. Yet we miss out the fundamental, basic core skill of financial literacy. We expect current and future generations to go out into the world, find a job, save for retirement, buy houses, take on debt, start and run businesses and bring in the next generation of their families with only the most rudimentary knowledge of how the financial and money systems work.
That is not to say that there is no financial education. Schools make efforts to provide it. I have been lucky enough in my capacity as a Member of Parliament to give such a lesson, at Baxter college in Kidderminster, where the kids I talked to engaged very well with the subject of money. I also witnessed a lesson given by RBS at King Charles school in Kidderminster. Bank staff teach years 7 and 8 how to use a bank and understand the basics of the banking system. I know that schools would like to do more in that area. I am in the process of setting up a group of volunteers to go into schools to provide financial education for local kids.
Even with that benevolent tailwind of good will from teachers, provision is patchy and sporadic. There are serious problems in this country because of financial illiteracy. I shall paint a slightly gloomy picture to take account of where we are now. For many years our constituents were bombarded with letters from banks and credit card companies, announcing pre-approval for a £10,000 loan, an opportunity to go on that life-changing Caribbean cruise or a chance to own that sports car that it is impossible to live without. All the while, even senior people in the country—I am not making any political point—were assuring us that the traditional economic cycles had somehow been changed.
The reality is that economic cycles will never change. There will always be an economic cycle that goes through the five stages of recovery, acceleration, boom, slowdown and recession. However, to maintain the illusion, we had irresponsible lending and, it now seems, as we have heard today, illegal activities around market abuse from the biggest banks, which is one of the most shocking things that we will hear while we are Members of Parliament.
To talk about irresponsible lending without addressing the other side of the coin is, however, only to half-address the problem. Taking out a 120% mortgage at the height of a property boom is irresponsible borrowing, and the banks could not lend irresponsibly were it not for irresponsible borrowing by successive consumers. However, here is the nub of the matter: is it fair to brand a consumer an irresponsible borrower, if he or she is not equipped with the knowledge to make a rational and informed decision about their borrowing? If someone does not have the knowledge to recognise the cynicism of the advertising campaigns and the short-termism of something like the fashion industry, how on earth can they make a sound judgment on the merits of a spending decision?
It is worth putting the country’s situation in perspective. Government debt, amassed over many years, stands at £1 trillion. Personal debt—the debt we collectively own among us—stands at just under £1.5 trillion. That is more than £56,000 for every household in the country. To put that into a wider context, I understand that half of all European personal debt lies within our shores, among a population representing about 10% of the population of Europe. Of that total debt, £55 billion is on credit cards.
The real worry to bear in mind is that I have outlined the situation at a time of super-low interest rates. The base rate has been at its present level for nearly five years, but that is totally abnormal. It is not even normal for a very low interest rate period, but over the five-year period, people have got used to ultra-low rates. The reality is that interest rates will undoubtedly rise, to a low interest rate environment. That means that the rise could happen before we get back to any semblance of a healthy economy. In a normal period of low interest rates, the base rate could rise from 3% to 4%. That, in simple terms, would increase the cost of borrowing by about one third; but if the base rate rises from its current level to a still low 2%, the cost of debt servicing rises fourfold. The implication is an astronomical rise in households’ debt costs.
We are talking about social mobility at a time when everything we are trying to achieve could be scuppered by the most basic movements in interest rates. It is vital that we try to head off such a disaster by providing advice, and we must also ensure that we never again face this potential catastrophe by training our next generation to engage in the economy in a far more educated way.
The immediate problem can be mitigated for some by website-based advice services. Some of the private ones, such as moneysavingexpert.com, provide good advice for those who can access and engage with them. That is an important point; not everyone can engage with the websites, because they do not understand even the basics. The Financial Services Authority’s efforts through the Money Advice Service are, at the moment, lamentable, but at least it is putting cash into debt advice services such as those provided by citizens advice bureaux.
If we are to avoid any further crises in household finances, we absolutely must introduce financial education into our curriculum. The demand for it is not being met. Some 97% of 11 to 17-year-olds think it is important, 80% of parents want their nine and 10-year-olds to learn about money and 66% of Britons think that financial lessons would have given them the resources to deal with their financial challenge. Given that 43% of parents do not know what an APR or a PPI is, it seems that those 66% of Britons are absolutely right that we need to teach people more.
As a former investment banker, even though I can dissect the Bayesian probability models that drive some black box hedge funds, my bank manager will testify, I am embarrassed to say, that I am completely incapable of balancing my cheque book every month. The all-party group on financial education for young people, of which I am vice-chairman, is calling for financial education to be put on the school curriculum.
I have painted a gloomy picture, but only because I want to reinforce the message that we cannot possibly expect people to achieve any form of social mobility without being able to engage with the oil that lubricates the engine of the economy in which we all live. If people are comfortable dealing with money and financial products, we have a confident population, equipped to do well in life, but if not, we trap people at best and, worse, in this complex financial world, we place them in danger of social failure.
I want to see financial literacy taught in two ways. First, I want to see the quantitative side being taught in maths, which not only will equip people to know whether they can afford something, but can bring maths to life. If the question, “Compounding 125 at 17% on 18 regular intervals while reducing the sum equally over those 18 intervals requires what discounting?” were asked as, “You want to buy a pair of football boots costing £125 on your credit card with an APR of 17%. What is your monthly repayment if you are to pay it off before they wear out in 18 months’ time?”, that would engage a lot more people in finding out how the maths works.
Absolutely. On the qualitative side, the question, “If I spend £125 on a pair of football boots, will I be able to play like David Beckham?” needs to be taught elsewhere, in personal, social, health and economic education, and in the wider curriculum. I discovered, to my cost, that the answer is no.
As time progresses, and we talk more about the subject, I am increasingly convinced that financial education needs to be not only included in the curriculum, but tested. Teachers who have huge pressures on their time naturally tend towards subjects in which there is testing, so if we do not test financial literacy there is a fear that it will not be put into the curriculum.
What we are trying to achieve is not just people being able to work out their bank and credit card balances. I want my constituents and all the people of this country to be able to work out problems such as that of a hypothetical individual who loses their job and lives in a rural community with £5,000 redundancy money to their name. I want people to be able to make the crucial decision about that individual’s future. Should they blow the money on a cheer-me-up holiday of a lifetime, or should they buy a car to seek work further afield? Should they use the money to retrain for something different, or should they invest it in a new business that they own and can drive forward, thus taking control of their own life?
The absolutely crucial engine to social mobility has to lie in financial literacy. That is why I will continue to urge the Government to put financial education on to the curriculum, and to test it.
There has been a change to the running order, due to a late entry. It will now be: Meg Hillier, Mark Pawsey, Virendra Sharma, Mike Crockart, Jackie Doyle-Price, Kelvin Hopkins and Martin Vickers. But do not worry; you have an average of 11 minutes each.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this vital debate. I think that on this occasion we have common ground, and we are all hon. Friends. It is easy to talk the talk, but I want to talk a bit about how we can walk the walk, in ensuring that we achieve some results.
I declare that I am now happily a vice-chair of the all-party group on social mobility. It is appropriate that I take on that responsibility because I represent one of the poorest boroughs in the country. I do not want to bombard Members with statistics, but it is important to set in context some of the reasons why I am particularly interested in this issue. The latest child poverty statistics from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, from 2009, show that the London average for children living in poverty is 29.6%, and the national figure is 21%, whereas the figure for Hackney is more than double that, at nearly 46%.
A decade ago, Hackney schools were not delivering results; they were a byword for people fleeing Hackney. People were coming to see me about how they could get their children into schools outside the borough, but now they beg me to do anything I can to get their children into schools in Hackney. Through the London Challenge, and the local authority and elected mayor embracing every opportunity provided by any Government, we have new, fresh-start schools. The Labour Government provided us with academies and we have had another, along with a university technical college, agreed under this Government.
In Hackney in 2004, the figure for pupils achieving five A* to C grades, including maths and English, was 29%, and in 2011 it was 57%. There were some very high achieving schools, including Mossbourne community academy in my constituency, which achieved 84% such grades, and nine offers of places at Cambridge the year before last. A number of our schools are, of course, not yet at the GCSE stage because they were fresh starts. We are seeing huge achievement in schools. We are also seeing that background poverty is not an excuse for lower achievement, and that we can challenge that stereotypical assumption. With good rigour and good teaching in schools, we can achieve results.
Hackney may have its poverty, but there is no poverty of ambition, as the results show. Education maintenance allowance take-up was high in the borough, with 3,611 young people receiving it, and that was a significant factor. I met one young woman who said that on a Thursday she would use her allowance to put money on the electricity key, so that she could have light and heating in the house, for the family to live and for her to do her homework. The allowance was used for very basic things. In a debate a couple of weeks ago, I raised my concerns about what is happening to the young people who really need the support. Although there have been some attempts to bridge the gap, I am not yet convinced that those attempts will do what the education maintenance allowance did for young people in Hackney.
A really good example of what Hackney schools are achieving is that we are seeing huge results, even though the free school meals take-up at secondary school level represents 40% of pupils—in London as a whole the figure is 25%, and nationally it is 16%. Those figures are another indicator of the challenges but, in spite of that, 40% of Hackney pupils in maintained schools went into higher education in 2008-2009, according to the latest figures available from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
The Minister will know that the statistics are not perfect, because tracking is difficult, and I completely endorse the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles about having an alumni system, because there is not enough follow-through for young people. Nationally, the percentage of children on free school meals who go on to university is 17%, so we are achieving well in Hackney, with what might be described as a challenging cohort. There is a good track record, but improving educational results is clearly not enough.
From talking to young people, I have picked up that they very much need the kind of networks that my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles talked about. I will say a little about that, and about why I have got involved in helping to develop the idea locally. Members might have read a book by Andrew Adonis—now Lord Adonis—entitled “A Class Act”.
The book is out of print, and I am urging him to update it. It highlights the closed nature of professions, which is an issue that has been brought bang up to date by the Government’s independent reviewer on social mobility, Alan Milburn, in his report entitled “Fair Access to Professional Careers”, which has already been cited. I will not repeat everything that the report says—I am sure many Members are familiar with it—but one thing it recognises is that professions will account for 83% of all new jobs in Britain in the next decade. Unless we get greater access to professions from across all groups, we will be cutting out an awful lot of people from new jobs.
Some professions have made good progress. In the civil service, for example, of the top 200 civil servants in 2012, 27% were privately educated, compared with 45% just three years ago in 2009. That has happened as a result not of this Government’s activities or even, to a degree, those of the previous Government, but of an organisation recognising that it did not represent the people whom it serves.
We need to look at the professions’ grip on how they recruit. I visited a school in Hackney the other week—I will touch on what I am doing with some schools—whose pupils said that they needed contacts, particularly in banking, an industry in which I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) formerly worked. Some 90% of jobs in banking go to people who have already had some work experience, but those placements usually go to the children of partners or clients. That cuts out pretty much everybody in a Hackney school, yet we are on the edge of the City and have very good links with UBS, which sponsors an academy in Hackney, and with KPMG—another bank and accountancy firm—and the City of London, which both sponsor another academy. We must keep challenging, and I will touch on some of the work that I have been doing in that regard.
Another issue raised by Alan Milburn’s report is the desire to make internships paid positions and accessible to all. I want to focus on accessibility. I do not completely disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles. We need properly paid internships, but my worry—we need to be careful about this—is that if that is the only route that we follow, we will move the point at which young people will be selected for those positions to the interview stage. Are all our young people ready for that? If we are going to do this properly, it is about not just securing payment for internships, but ensuring that young people are prepared so that they are not as nervous my right hon. Friend was when she went for her first interview. They need to be ready.
We have all heard horror stories about interviews and I want to share one that will sound unbelievable. I will not name the source, because it might embarrass him. A young person from another part of the country—not my own—was keen to study medicine and had an interview at Cambridge. He had done a lot of preparation, but when he turned up for the interview and walked into the room, he saw three men sitting on the floor, ready to conduct it. That is a recent example.
We have all heard stories like the one involving a tutor who threw a rugby ball when candidates entered the room to see whether they could catch it. If they caught it, they got a place, and if they converted it, they got a scholarship. Such stories may be anecdotal, but they demonstrate that there are issues with regard to how universities admit students. I will touch on that later, if I have time. As with internships, we need to look at all aspects of access, not just the money, and make sure that people feel comfortable.
Our local sixth form college in Hackney, BSix, has introduced something called the red room. It has kitted out a room in the college to make it look like an Oxbridge don’s study. It is book-lined, has low chairs and has a courtyard outside. A fellow from Oxford turns up every week to talk to pupils, teach them in the room and give them a feel of what it is like to be in such an environment.
I agree strongly with what my hon. Friend is saying. One of the points that I have made to our sixth form college is that one’s oral expression is absolutely key in interviews. So often it is those from private schools and the middle class who have an enormous advantage simply as a result of how they speak. Giving people the opportunity to learn a more elaborate way of speaking gives them much more of an advantage at interview.
Absolutely. That is important. The Government buy a lot of business from a lot of organisations, so I ask the Minister whether it would be possible to include a requirement in Government contracts to provide support to young people from the types of background under discussion.
May I make a quick plug for MPs recruiting apprentices to their own offices? I have had a fantastic experience with my first apprentice caseworker over the past year, and will shortly take on another one from a school in my constituency. It is a fantastic experience for them and for me.
I hear what the hon. Lady says; we could all set an example in that respect. The lack of diversity with regard to people applying for jobs in Parliament is an issue that we all could and should tackle in our recruitment.
I am sure that other Members will raise issues relating to access to university, but I want to highlight how the Open university is doing an awful lot to improve access and helping people progress from the OU to Russell group universities, which is important.
I want to talk briefly about what is happening with young people in Hackney. I have set up a networking programme called “Next Steps”, which is similar to the programme described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles. It provides access to young people to build networks with professional and business people. So far, I have hosted one event—there will be another one next week—in which professionals taught young people about networks and provided the connections.
A young woman who wants to be a medical student had written to everyone she could think of to try to get a placement, but without success. I was able to find her one, however, because an MP’s address book—this might be true even if I were not an MP, but that is how I have progressed to this point in life—means that we have that access. We need to do more of that. Young people tell me, “We don’t want handouts; we want help. We want HR, not social responsibility.”
Hackney council’s children and young people scrutiny commission looked at raising aspirations and talked to young people themselves. Hackney youth parliament commissioned research of the views of young people in Hackney. They say—we should all listen to this—that they want better listening and engagement with young people when devising participation strategies. In other words, “Don’t tell us how to do it. Ask us what we want and what we need.” They also say that they want young people to be involved in the world of work, including improving the careers service.
I have high hopes for our careers service. As the hon. Member for East Hampshire said, careers services are never perfect, but I live in hope. The young people of Hackney also want the development of a world of work curriculum as part of personal, social, health and economic education. They also want to showcase opportunities for children, young people, carers and parents, and for them to include enterprise days, milk rounds, paid placements and so on. They know what they want and what their parents need to help them break through. We need to make sure that that happens.
Parental support can be challenging for parents, particularly those from backgrounds where there are no professional links and where English might not be their first language. Perhaps literacy in even their mother tongue is challenging and connections with their mother-tongue community are not great. Such people need support in understanding that there are good opportunities for their young people to pursue. The support of parents in making the right choices is very important, but unless we help educate parents, as well as provide support to young people, we will not make that breakthrough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like the other Members who have spoken, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on securing this debate. My hon. Friend made an interesting speech, demonstrating his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the topic, and the right hon. Lady gave an interesting account of why it is so important to her.
It is great that there is cross-party consensus on the issue. We all agree that everybody in this country should be born with equal life chances, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire told us, in many instances the situation is going backwards. The cohort that he grew up with, who are in their 40s, have less social mobility than the cohort that I grew up with, who are in their 50s. It is beholden on the Government to equalise life chances so that everybody has the best possible chance of success.
I want to talk about a couple of issues: the Government’s troubled families initiative and my hopes for its success; and the value of education. Parliament’s troubled families support group consists of a number of Conservative MPs, including my hon. Friend and me, who have an interest in that area of policy and who support the Minister. I am pleased that my county council in Warwickshire has signed up early to the troubled families initiative and that, as a consequence, 800 families in my county—many of them in my constituency of Rugby—will get extra help.
The key ideas are to reduce truancy, get young people back into school and reduce youth and anti-social behaviour, as well as help adults back into work. The initiative has a payment-by-results mechanism, with up to £4,000 available for every family who are successfully turned around. That means that there is £3 million available to Warwickshire over the next three years. The council has already appointed a troubled families co-ordinator, and I am looking forward to meeting directors and officers of the council over the coming weeks to discuss how the process will work.
My hon. Friend articulated the importance of mobility when he spoke about social justice and economic growth. Such growth depends on the best deployment of resources. Many factors contribute to the problem, such as the care system, the welfare system, a lack of role models and regional inequalities, but, judging from Members remarks so far, the issue of education is to the fore.
That is a key part of the troubled families initiative: getting excluded children back into the classroom. Local authorities have to hit a target of achieving 85% attendance in schools for the children from the families involved, and fewer than three exclusions during a year. Those are tough targets for local councils to achieve, but such work is worth it given the importance of education in dealing with people’s life chances. The pupil premium has also been mentioned. I am proud that the Government have extended the remit of the pupil premium and are providing a total of £625 million this year and a further £1.25 billion next year in additional funding for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire said that it was inevitable that a Conservative Member would raise the matter of grammar schools. In this debate, so far, it will be me. I make no apologies for taking the opportunity to talk about the benefits of a selective education. I went to a grammar school in Rugby and there are three other MPs who also went to that school. In school, we rarely got to talk about the backgrounds of those we were at school with, but I was in a class with the sons of factory workers and mechanics, some of whom went on to set up their own businesses, to rise to senior positions in plcs, and to enter professions.
The issue of selective education is important because although there have been many improvements in schools since the 1960s, there are fewer opportunities for poorer children to access the very highest achieving schools available. Of course, it is up to each local area to decide on its constituent schools. I am proud that my constituency has an excellent system of selective education. However, in the area I represent, improvements could be made to the process of selection to ensure that we have a fairer result.
In the Warwickshire selection system, people should be able to opt out of the selection exam, rather than having the current opt-in system. I fully understand that some parents do not wish their child to have a selective education or for their child to take part in the exam. However, the children of many families who do not know about or understand registration deadlines or the forms to fill in miss out on an opportunity. In canvassing for local elections some time ago, I met a very bright 12-year-old whose parents told me that their child was denied the chance of a grammar school education simply because they did not manage to fill the forms in on time. That is a real tragedy and that issue is something I would like to see changed.
The current process whereby children take the selection exam in an exam centre rather than where they regularly go to school is also inappropriate. For youngsters aged 11, the pressure and anxiety to perform well can be exacerbated by unfamiliar surroundings. I would like the process of identifying those bright and capable children who are able to benefit from a selective education to take place in surroundings they are familiar with. I know that those are local decisions, but attention to both matters would help to improve social mobility.
As my hon. Friend might expect, I agree with everything he has been saying. One further point I would like to add to the list is the importance of state primary schools giving practice tests to all their pupils. That would mean pupils in state schools had the same experience as prep school pupils or those who have had the benefit of tutoring: they will have encountered the test before and will not be fazed by being confronted with a selection test they have not seen before.
I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s words. I support selective education as a driver of social mobility on the basis that it is made equally accessible to all children. There is a danger that the system is being taken advantage of by those who are able to do so, and I would like the playing field to be made as level as possible.
I would also like to talk about the role of fathers in the home and the strength that children can derive from a family unit. In this day and age, I recognise that those circumstances are not available for everyone. There is a strong role for fathers, but young people can also benefit from help with homework, summer camps and extra tutoring. People step in to provide support when fathers are absent. There are some great national schemes such as the Prince’s Trust and local organisations such as the Mayday Trust in my constituency. I want them to be given every help and support.
On the issue of education, it is entirely right that we place emphasis on the early years. However, there should also be influence on the later years. I was interested to hear the remarks of the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles about second and third chances. The Government’s agenda on apprenticeships could contribute. The previous Government made a great deal about the percentage of school leavers going to university, but a university degree is not the sole route to success within a career; there can be more hands-on routes. Those who know a trade or a skill can use that as a route to the top of an organisation just as effectively as winning a degree. I want more recognition for those who go down that particular route.
As politicians, we knock on people’s doors and are often invited into their homes. We often see in the hallway and in the living room photographs of people—it may be their children or grandchildren—receiving their degree certificate. The question I often ask myself is: where is the equivalent celebration for those who have pursued a less academic route?
A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to attend the Rugby apprentice of year award on national vocational qualification day. I acknowledge the great success of Lee Bradley in my constituency as the first recipient of that award. We need to have the same regard for those who take that route in their career as for those who take a more academic route.
I am delighted that that issue is being taken more seriously by business. Earlier today, I had the great pleasure to meet the midlands business woman of the year, Julie White, who runs a business called D-Drill. She puts a massive emphasis on apprentices. In fact, she is doing an apprenticeship herself, so that she knows exactly the work that the guys in her business are doing. She tells me that somebody in a very senior management role in her business was, some years ago, an apprentice.
In conclusion, I thank hon. Members who have contributed for their work. Great work is being done in the all-party group on social mobility, and I look forward to it continuing its work and effecting change in this very important area.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for accepting my late request to speak in the debate and giving me the opportunity to do so. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on securing the debate, which is very important and close to everybody’s heart. The subject has brought all parties together, because everyone wants to see a decent and equal society. That is the positive side of the debate that we have seen today. I also congratulate all the previous speakers. I agree with every point they have raised and the issues they have discussed.
We all have our own experiences of life. I assure hon. Members that aspirations and beliefs do not stop at the age of 40, 50 or after 50—many of us still believe that there is a future for us. As I said, we all have experiences and stories to tell. Today, I will talk about my life and how I started my career. I will also mention a few of the hurdles I have faced. Many others may also have had such experiences.
To some people, it may be a surprise that I started my life in this country as a bus conductor. From that, I got to where I am now. During the many years of my working life, I had different experiences. I had my own aspirations and I wanted to ensure that I achieved something in life. However, not having been born here but having arrived when I was 20 years old, I also had to settle, so I faced a mixture of challenges. I wanted to achieve something, but there were barriers. The first barrier was a lack of knowledge and support. I had opportunities, and I was working, but I was sharing one room with a wife and child while trying to learn and gain qualifications.
I started in further education part-time through the Open university, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) referred, then continued to study as a mature student. Imagine having a family, living in one room and looking after a child while trying to achieve academic qualifications. Over the years, we have come a long way. Many people have support and guidance from mentors and other individuals. As I was not born here and did not receive my basic education in this country, social mobility is an issue that goes to my heart. I also believe that without support and guidance—which I did not have at the time—it is difficult to achieve.
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Social mobility is a vast issue that should be addressed from birth and the earliest years. However, I will focus on the social mobility of our young people and how they grow up and enter the world of work. It can be boiled down to three key issues, which I will address in turn. First, are all young people aware of and exposed to the same opportunities, be they jobs, education or other opportunities? Unfortunately, many approaches to social mobility over the decades have treated it as a way for people to get out of the lower levels of society and move up to the highest stratum. That has meant that as promising young people from poor communities prove exceptions to the rule and do well for themselves, they leave their community or school to live or study elsewhere, where other successful people are, creating a divide that must be broken down. Young people of all backgrounds should be able to see others doing well in a host of professions and to learn from and share their experiences.
I do not want to criticise the present Government’s policies, but the reality is that policy changes have created problems and hurdles for young people from certain communities. When my children were growing up, careers advice services such as the doomed Connexions were a vital tool in exposing young people to the options available to them. However, as that programme has unfortunately faced the Government axe, young people must look online for inspiration, apparently to the National Careers Service. It is a good website, but it is not enough. People who have had the experience of going through the careers service will know that one-to-one, face-to-face advice, guidance and encouragement are totally different from reading a website and then looking for someone who might be in a position to give advice and guidance.
Secondly, do all young people have the skills and experience required to follow the path that they choose? It is all well and good inspiring someone and setting them on a certain path, but they must be able to measure up against the competition. I speak as a grandfather whose grandson is growing up and looking for that kind of support. Many families and individuals do not have the skills to give their grandchildren that I may have gained after many years’ experience of life.
Whatever school someone enters and whatever their background, were they taught the skills that they now require, and were they taught well enough to qualify for the opportunities that they are interested in? From a young age, children need a broad and engaging national curriculum to learn the skills and qualifications on which they may later rely. I am concerned that the Government’s decision to focus on a narrower range of academic subjects will be to the detriment of many. A balanced curriculum in which pupils are allowed to make their own choices is an important part of developing experience and skills appropriate to what they might want to do, testing different options and finding out what they are good at and enjoy.
I am concerned by a recent claim by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that Government spending on sixth-form colleges will decline by 17.8% between now and 2015. At a time when the education-leaving age is rising, that will put even greater pressure on individual providers. Added to that is the abolition of the education maintenance allowance, which in 2009-10 supported 600,000 pupils to stay in post-16 education or training. It will be replaced by a fund amounting to just 40% of the EMA’s original value. Post-16 education is a vital gateway into higher education or a job for many. Unquestionably, such vast cuts will detrimentally affect the number of people proceeding to higher education, the quality of education provided or both.
Not content with that, the Government have made further education cuts of 25% between now and 2015 for adult learners, who must now pay up front for the full cost of courses themselves or take on a fee loan. That will undoubtedly deter many adults from continuing or returning to education, and will have a disproportionate impact on women, who make up 64% of level 3 and higher qualifications. The National Union of Students cites research from the Learning and Skills Research Centre estimating that two thirds of learners would not consider using loans to fund learning under any circumstances. That move was made without adequate consultation, and I ask the Government to think again.
Thirdly, can young people freely access their chosen opportunity? Is their chosen university or course affordable for them and their family? Is their chosen company’s recruitment process open and fair? It is all well and good talking about creating career opportunities, but what about fairly distributing the opportunities already there?
Paid internships have been mentioned. As is all too evident in Parliament, they are the only way for many to gain any access to experience in politics, and in far too many other professions. I welcome the Government’s recent announcement that they will address the issue, but I seek clear and decisive action to see it through. To ask someone from a low-income family to travel to London, to find accommodation while here and, at the same time, to sacrifice the chance of paid work which would support their family is something that many would find impossible. Despite being active, passionate young people, with great qualifications and a burning ambition to work in their chosen industry, that simple barrier eliminates them from the race and prevents a potential future employer from benefiting from their talent, skills and experience.
Social mobility is a vast concept and one that I have barely touched on. I feel strongly that opportunities must be created for our young people but, more than that, they must be able to access equally and fairly those opportunities already out there and currently taken by such a small pool of people.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), who illustrated perfectly that some of the best examples of social mobility come from our immigrant community. The fact that they can show so much ambition and advancement, and take advantage of the opportunities available to them, is inspirational for all of us. We should celebrate them.
I was struck by the speech by the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who is no longer in her place. Her back story illustrated that no matter how much ambition, ability and aspiration someone has—the desire to advance oneself—there are still barriers to be hit on that journey. Even with her force of personality, she found some of those intimidating. For all the policy initiatives that we can adopt, the biggest challenge is probably tackling those environmental and societal factors that act as the biggest inhibitors to social mobility.
My journey to this place was rather similar to the right hon. Lady’s. My parents also left school at 14, they had me when they were very young and the first few years of my life were impoverished. We lived in a two-up, two-down with no hot running water and an outside loo, and here I am addressing the mother of Parliaments. Perhaps the biggest message that I got from my parents growing up was, “We want your life to be better than ours.” That message stuck with me and drove that ambition from an early age, which gave me the incentive and the belief that my life could be better than theirs. I might well be better informed on this issue than on many of the other things that I talk about in the House.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). His speech, opening the debate, was a forensic tour de force of the challenges that we face. He brings the philosophical and thoughtful approach, while I go for the raw practicalities, but between all the contributions to the debate we will illuminate the subject and find a way to tackle some of the problems.
The starting point for me is to define what we mean by social mobility, and we have had some discussion of that. I believe it to be a society in which meritocracy is the key. The privilege afforded by where we are born has always been present in British society, and we would be naive to think that it will ever be altered. None the less, we should all endeavour to create those conditions in which people can achieve the best possible outcomes for themselves. Certainly we politicians should ensure that Government have in place no active inhibitor to people taking advantage of their opportunities.
The more immediate concern is that social mobility has declined in recent years. I want to dwell on some of the reasons for that, because often it is the unintended consequences of policies that, on the one hand, enhance mobility for some but, on the other hand, make it more difficult for others. The performance of our education system and the extent to which it encourages aspiration are crucial.
My hon. Friend referred to attendance at university as a key influence on social mobility, but I want to add a note of caution. Of course it is important for all those who are academically gifted to have the opportunity to study at university, but we also need to ensure that people understand that there are any number of routes to achieve given outcomes. In many cases, encouraging people to go to university will be a hindrance as much as a help. The simple reason is that now we have so many more graduates chasing an ever-tighter number of popular job vacancies.
We have had some discussion of internships, which I think have been fuelled by the rise in the number of graduates. The reality is that, with a bigger supply of graduates, the skill set that people can demonstrate and the connections that they have are what influence whether they can take advantage of the opportunities. As the right hon. Lady explained, she got her law degree but had to make 300 job applications because she was not part of the right network and had no one to open those doors. A real risk is that we are giving many young people a false perspective, because if they invest all that time and yet the job outcomes are not happening, maintaining their focus and ambition to continue is difficult.
One of the keys is to expand people’s horizons and to ensure that we have a different series of routes to achieve good education and the opportunity to get on. In that regard, the greater emphasis on high-quality technical and vocational schools that are seen as equivalent to an academic education is crucial. I pay tribute to the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), for the enthusiasm and passion that he is bringing to rejuvenating and strengthening apprenticeships. We need to see apprenticeships not only as something for school leavers but—as they can be and increasingly are—as the pathway to a long, intensive period of training and work, which can even take people into senior management roles. Practically all the major wealth creators in Thurrock have not been to university—most of them started out as apprentices, and that is characteristic of what happens in industrial areas.
While many of the decision makers in government focus on indicators and on the number of people going to university or on whether someone is above or below the average, I am quite relaxed about that. It is more important that we ensure that everyone has the opportunity to follow the path that they wish to, and get good-quality education and skills in doing so.
We also need to expand the opportunities in the school sector and, in that regard, I wholeheartedly welcome the expansion of university technical colleges and studio schools, which will encourage the development of the wider communication skills that people need to attract work. As the school age is raised to 18, we have a lot more opportunity to introduce that into the curriculum. We need to get into schools, to ensure that they are offering every available opportunity to the pupils to make the best of themselves, to meet their needs and to allow them to excel.
I want to bring a bit more personal experience into the story. As I mentioned, the key is what happens in practice—setting the policy is fine, but the delivery on the ground is what matters. This year, my little boy went up to secondary school. He is doing well—the teachers tell me that he is excelling at history and IT and he got the boy of the year award this week, so he is very proud—but in his first term he had a lengthy period of illness, which meant that he was absent. The school wrote to me and suggested that he should be taken out of his normal lessons and put on a programme that encouraged him to understand the need to attend school. Clearly, that was not appropriate on this occasion. The school had simply looked at attendance and thought, “Right, we’ll send a letter.” Later, when I went to parents’ evening and was told that my son was doing so well, I said, “Okay, so what are your policies towards children who are performing well and are gifted?” The school does not have any. It has a programme to ensure that pupils who do not attend do attend, but it does not have programmes in place to ensure that children who are doing well really excel. Schools need to look at the needs of their pupils in their entirety. They need to look at them on a pupil-focused basis and not treat them as numbers on a piece of paper.
For all our talk of policies and structures, I believe that people and role models will have the most decisive influence on whether children really get on. In my case, my eyes were opened one day at school at the end of a history lesson, when I had a robust discussion with my history teacher about the real role and nature of communism. He took me to one side and said, “Jackie, it’s all very well you and I having these arguments during lessons, but I think you really ought to participate in democracy, and use that as your outlet.” With that one conversation my life changed, and it was because that teacher had taken me to one side. I suddenly thought, life is not just about going through school, going to college, and becoming a secretary. I could do something different.
We can all play a role in this. We can go into schools, and inspire children by explaining that opportunities are available to them, and that they do not have to follow the path their parents took. With that in mind, I want to pay tribute to some of the initiatives in my constituency. Some of the rugby fans among us may have heard of Ralph Henderson MBE. He runs a programme in which he takes sporting stars into schools to make motivational speeches, which is a really good tool to encourage children to think that they can aim for the stars, and that if they have the focus, dedication and ambition, they can get there. In a couple of weeks, I will be sharing a platform with Derek Redmond and Ralph. Somehow I think the children will get more inspiration from them than from me, but I will do my best. We should support such programmes.
Mentoring is key, because young people need a secure environment and a relationship with people in which they can talk honestly and without any threat about the opportunities open to them. The reality is that if they are on an upward trajectory they will often not get that from their parents. They will only hear about the things their parents know. We must provide every opportunity to open the horizons and to give young people more chance to think.
The role of mentors is important to support young people, and to ensure that if they show ambition they are challenged. When I was thinking about going to university, my family, friends and neighbours asked me why I wanted to defer getting a job for three years when I could be earning money. It takes quite a robust young person to say that they want to do something. Access to a mentoring network is important.
Similarly, schools should not be dissuading people from having ambition. At my comprehensive school, no one was encouraged to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. In fact, they were actively told that it would be a waste of time. I applied to Durham university, and was told that I was setting my sights a little high. In my case, that was more of an incentive to push on, but not everyone is as bloody-minded as me. We must make sure that the poor ambition of school leaders does not hold young people back.
I could go on for ever, because this is a real passion of mine. This has been an excellent debate, and it is one of those occasions when we illustrate that on both sides of the House we really care. I just wish that more people could see debates such as this, instead of the yah-boo that goes on in the main Chamber. They would have much healthier respect for politicians if they did.
It is a pleasure, Mr Rosindell, to serve under your chairmanship. I apologise to hon. Members for not being here earlier, but I was speaking in the main Chamber in another debate. It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), and I was fascinated to hear what she had to say. Her experience was similar to my wife’s experience. She came from a working-class family, and passed the 11-plus. Her parents did not understand what the 11-plus or GCSEs were, but she eventually went to teacher training college and became a teacher. However, she would never have been able to go through college had she not had two things: free tuition and a full grant. She would not have had any income from anywhere, but she received free tuition and a full grant. That was one reason why I spoke in this Room in 1998 to oppose the introduction of fees and charges for students, and the abolition of grants. That remains my position even now. I believe that we should restore free tuition and full grants for students.
I want to talk about the deeper divisions in our society, which I think still exist. The churn in social mobility is within the top 20%, 40% or even 60%. Our society is deeply divided between the elite academic layer and the great mass of people who have no aspiration and very little achievement. If one looks at the OECD statistics for educational achievement, we have the best at the top and the worst at the bottom. Something is profoundly wrong with what we do with our young people in that bottom 10%.
On a recent visit to Denmark with the European Scrutiny Committee, I spoke to politicians and officials about pupils speaking English. We were told that 95% of people in Denmark speak English. One cannot imagine 95% of people in Britain speaking any foreign language, apart from those who have come here from abroad with two languages. There is something different about Britain. I think that there are historic reasons for it, which have, I think, been touched on by George Orwell and other writers. We have preserved in aspic the divisions in our society, which go back to Shakespeare’s time. If we look at “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” and the attitude of the king and others when they are watching the play within a play performed by Bottom, the weaver, we can see that it is a case of, “Let us be nice to the simple folk.” That social division was vast then, but it is still recognisable today. We have not changed as other societies have changed.
I used to work as a research officer for the National and Local Government Officers association and was often trundled out to talk to visiting foreign groups. I was describing British society to some social workers from Hamburg. They were very uncomfortable and said, “By your definition, all Germans are middle class.” That was because their attitude to education and aspiration are so different from ours. They do not have such deep divisions.
I am chair of the all-party group on social science and policy. We recently had a breakfast seminar on social mobility, in which Professor Paul Gregg from Bristol university said that the divisions within our society are still there and that social mobility at the lower level has reduced rather than increased in recent years. I am strongly in favour of making education the best it can be and of ensuring that everyone learns, but there are still attitudinal divisions within our society. The hon. Member for Thurrock told us how her friends said, “Why are you bothering to go to university? Why not stay with us?” My wife had the same pressures. “You don’t want to go to school. You want to come and get a job and get some money in your pocket,” they said, but she said, “No, I want to be a teacher.” She had to fight against the attitude of her social class and family. That attitude was common in those days, and is still there today.
Bryan Gould, who was an MP many years ago, went back to New Zealand because, as he said, he was so depressed about the social divisions in Britain. There was this attitude, he said, that somehow education was “not for the likes of us”. There was deference. Instead of being angry about being in a lower social class, many just accepted their lot. He felt that that was deeply conservative and very depressing.
Clearly, we must have the best possible education. We also need to intervene to try and change our culture, and get it across to young people that the possibilities in life are much greater than the horizons that they are looking at, and that if they do study well at school and have the right education, they can expand their horizons; they can learn a foreign language and know about things.
I have so many anecdotes to tell because I have read about this subject for a long time. In the 1980s, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research did a lot of research on this matter and it had an exchange of teachers between Moscow, in the then Soviet Union, and London. The Russian teachers spoke English and were quite happy to come and teach here. The English teachers could not speak Russian, but they went to teach in Moscow. They came back and said that the standard of education in Moscow was astonishing. They said that the children were doing things at 16 that we do at university. The Russian teachers were asked what they thought about the English pupils. They said, “The children were very nice and we enjoyed teaching them, but they didn’t appear to know anything.” We have had serious problems in our education and in our culture, but people did not seem to worry about it. We have started to do things differently.
The advocacy of the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) for the 11-plus and selection is mistaken. They were a social divider, which hived off one in five of the population. In my family, passing the 11-plus and going to university were compulsory. My parents were academics, and therefore it was expected. The thought of failure was unacceptable. That was opposite to my wife’s experience. We can talk about such things.
The 11-plus divided families and friends, and gave people completely different attitudes to life and what they could expect from it. My theory, and it is only a theory, is that that division has rippled forward through generations. Those who went to university from working-class backgrounds became middle class and their children did the same; those who did not do so carried on with working-class culture. That cultural division has remained with us, which is one reason why I so oppose the 11-plus.
We had this debate in the all-party group. Does my hon. Friend agree that an implication of the 11-plus and a selective system is that the more academically able are inevitably creamed off? In the past, what was left was not a comprehensive school, or even a very good secondary school, but a secondary modern in which the choices that young people had were often very limited and directed specifically to the kinds of jobs that they were expected to get in the long term. They did not do a foreign language or English literature, but woodwork, metalwork and needlework. It was a very narrow curriculum, which was certainly not good for social mobility or the country as a whole.
My right hon. Friend is right, and those divisions have continued. They have become more rigid due to the failures of our education system.
What I am going to say now will annoy teachers. What I wanted from comprehensive education was a grammar school education for everyone. We did not get it. At the same time as creating comprehensive schools, we introduced informal child-centred teaching methods, which were a disaster. We have had two or three generations of such methods, which are fine for kids from middle-class families, who have books, educated parents and extra tuition to get them through exams, but not fine for working-class kids whose only chance is school. They need rigour. We are now all talking about the need for rigour in schools, particularly in primary education.
We have made some terrible mistakes. The juxtaposition of comprehensive education with informal teaching methods and attitudes caused the problems. One can only look at what has happened on the continent of Europe—I do not have much time, but I want to tell hon. Members about one of my closest friends, who lives in France. His children go to French schools and the rigour for six and seven-year-olds is astonishing. We do not take that seriously. I have upset many of my wife’s dear friends. A head teacher at one of her schools said, “You’d have them all sitting quietly in rows, wouldn’t you?”, and I said, “What’s wrong with that?” It is interesting that we are now doing it in academies. We do not need to call a school “an academy” or change the nature of it, we need to change what is done in the classroom in the school.
We need to tell young people when they are very young, “You have a chance to have a life beyond your imagining, if you follow education. There are people who started where you are now, who have a life you cannot imagine. If you talk properly and learn well, you will have a more exciting and rewarding life, in every sense, not only financially and in terms of living standards. A more exciting and interesting life.” Getting that across to children when they are very young is vital. We need to say to them, “That’s why you’re going to sit down, be quiet and listen to me—because I’m going to make sure you have that good life.”
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) for securing this important debate and for giving me my first opportunity to speak about social mobility since becoming one of the vice-chairs of the all-party social mobility group.
It is entirely appropriate that the debate takes place in Westminster Hall, as it was here, nearly 500 years ago, that King Henry VIII’s closest aide came to put a Bill for the relief of the poor before Parliament. The causes of poverty listed in that Bill included unemployment and bad upbringing. It provided for a works programme that compelled the able-bodied to work on projects such as road building, maintenance of fortresses and harbours and cleansing of watercourses, in return for a fair wage. Even child beggars were to be hired as apprentices to skilled craftsmen, offering them a chance of a future that they would otherwise never have had. The proposals were radical, but that quality was perhaps more pronounced because they were the brainchild of Thomas Cromwell, who was the King’s chief Minister, Earl of Essex and Master of the Rolls—but also the son of a blacksmith from Putney.
We should be clear about what we mean by social mobility. We are not talking about creating equality of income, or equality of experience. Our aim is to achieve equality of opportunity and a society in which individuals who grow up in poorer families can use their talent and effort to move up the socio-economic ladder. The problem is that people from low-income backgrounds find it extremely difficult to get on in life through education and employment. Now, as in 1535, poverty is the greatest barrier to social mobility and equality.
The all-party group’s report on social mobility showed that the prospects of half of all children born in the UK can be almost entirely linked to their parents’ socio-economic circumstances. Perhaps contrary to outward perception and certainly counter to the American dream, America and Britain have the highest intergenerational correlations between the social status of fathers and sons—47% in America and 50% in the UK, whereas, by comparison, in Denmark it is just 15% and in Australia 17%. I have no doubt that that is in large part down to educational attainment.
The BBC 1 programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” has sparked many people’s interest in examining their backgrounds and finding out about their predecessors—often with surprising results. I, too, have looked into my predecessors. I found it quite easy, helped by the fact that my father, Robert Crockart, had a father named Robert George Crockart, whose father was Robert Crockart—you can guess the rest, Mr Rosindell. My father was born in Methven, a small village outside Perth, and I have traced his direct predecessors back almost 400 years to the 1600s, when they all worked manually on the land around Methven, so there was no degree of geographic mobility, never mind social mobility—yet here I stand. The only difference is education and my being the first in my family to achieve a degree—and not even that good a degree, it has to be said. That is only one example, but one that I am sure is repeated many hundreds of times across the country. That is why I regard access to education and especially higher education as key in this debate.
Two days ago, as part of my party’s attempts to increase representative diversity, I was shadowed by a potential Liberal Democrat candidate from a poor background, who blogged about the experience afterwards and reminded me of a certain quote:
“I believe that access to higher education is a key enabler of social mobility and the best way to narrow the gap between the richest and poorest in society.”
It is a wonderful quote. It is from me. I do not want to open old wounds, but those words were written in my letter of resignation from Government over the increase in tuition fees. I did so not because of any pledge, but because of a personal understanding that knowing that a figure indicated a contingent liability rather than an actual debt was a differentiation that would be lost on many young people from backgrounds like mine.
Nevertheless, I think the Government are right to view the problem more widely and to take a life-cycle approach by examining issues and interventions from the early years all the way through to adulthood.
The hon. Gentleman rightly expresses the anxieties that people had at the time of our tuition fee and loan proposals. Does he take some encouragement from the UCAS evidence that applications from school leavers and 18-year-olds at college have barely fallen? Indeed, we are running at the second highest rate of applications ever, and, in particular, we cannot find any differential fall in applications. If anything, applications from young people from low-income backgrounds have held up slightly better than those from other groups.
I accept what my right hon. Friend is saying. The difficulty was always selling the detail of the proposals. I looked at the detail of the measures and there was much there to commend them and much improvement on what was there before. My worry was that this large amount known as a debt would turn people off. If that has not happened, because of the huge efforts made by many hon. Members in this place and elsewhere, that is to be welcomed, but it was a huge concern at the time.
Lots of other proposals are going ahead, such as universal credit and the Work programme, which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said:
“have the potential to really move things on…and to provide a better basis to help people into work.”
I hope that our policies to ensure that the tax system is fairer will also play their part in lessening the gap between the richest and poorest. Other initiatives coming from the youth contract aim to provide secure, fairly paid jobs for people with the real prospect of progression.
At this point, I have to state that I stand here a repentant sinner. On arrival at Westminster with a very tight budget and an unforgiving Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority standing behind me, I did what everyone else was doing and took on unpaid interns. However, my actions sat increasingly uncomfortably with me. Despite the quality and easy supply of people, it was simply indefensible to me to give opportunity in such a way that only a small minority of people were able to take advantage of it. I now have two paid apprentices, both of whom are sitting in the Public Gallery today: one is from the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme and one from the parliamentary academy’s new deal of the mind. I urge all hon. Members here and others who read Hansard tomorrow to find out about such schemes to widen opportunities to people who, because of their background, would not normally be able to take up positions here. As I say, those people could not be here if they were not paid. The good side of that is that my conscience is now at peace once again.
I am doing what I can to help in my constituency. A similar scheme to that outlined by the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles has joined with the Department for Work and Pensions, Skills Development Scotland and Edinburgh Guarantee, which is run by the local council, to work with approximately 50 employers so far to create 100 paid training places for young people in 100 days. Youth contract funding makes such initiatives possible, and I urge hon. Members to get involved.
As the report on the seven key truths about social mobility states, the fact remains that
“the point of greatest leverage is at 0-3.”
Things such as a child’s development score at just 22 months can serve as an accurate predictor of educational outcomes at 26 years of age. Boys deemed to be at risk by nurses were two and a half times as likely to have criminal convictions as those in the not-at-risk group by the age of 21. It is clear that we must do much more to identify those at risk, intervene and ensure that they reach their potential.
I am anxious to allow the person speaking after me to have the full 10 minutes, so I will skip ahead and sum up by saying that social mobility is not only a matter of justice or fairness to individuals. Our country as a whole would benefit massively from increasing the fluidity of our society. When people are excluded from opportunities because of their background, we waste their talent and potential to contribute to our society in a meaningful way. We also risk being hugely out of touch with the majority of people if politicians, chief executives, judges, leading business figures and civil servants all have similar backgrounds, life experience and beliefs. Ninety per cent of MPs elected in 2010—my intake—went to university, and more than a third of them attended either Oxford or Cambridge. That contrasts with the general population: according to 2010 figures, only 31% of working-age adults in England were educated to university level.
In the 21st century, we are still discussing the issue that Thomas Cromwell’s draft Bill sought to address—changing the life chances of those born into poverty. Let this Parliament tackle the lack of social mobility in the UK with the same revolutionary zeal that he did—although perhaps without the beheading. Today’s debate is a good start.
Thank you, Mr Rosindell, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship.
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate. I also congratulate the members of the all-party group on social mobility who contributed to the report. I apologise that I was not present for the whole of the opening speech; like the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), I was taking part in the debate in the main Chamber. However, I attended the launch of the all-party group’s report a few weeks ago, so I have heard the full presentation, as it were, and taken note of it.
Social mobility is a fascinating subject and one in which I am particularly interested. We have heard so many life stories this afternoon that I almost expected someone—I nearly said Eamonn Andrews, but that would show my age—to appear, holding a red book and saying, “This is your life.” Hearing those stories has been truly fascinating and they have added greatly to the quality of the debate.
My main aim in speaking today is to contribute to the debate one particular thought about our school system, so I will not detain the House long. First, however, so as to avoid disappointing hon. Members and to help to explain my take on social mobility, I will give a quick resumé of where I come from.
Like many who have spoken today, I came from a working-class background. I was born in Cleethorpes, never dreaming that I would eventually become the Member of Parliament for that town. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), I lived in a two-up, two-down rented property. When my parents were eventually allocated a council house in neighbouring Grimsby, they thought they were moving into Buckingham palace. Interestingly enough, and seemingly contrary to what we have been saying, we are living proof that social mobility does exist. The point, of course, is that it does not exist as widely as we would all like it to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) spoke about the percentage of the new intake of MPs who went to university. That percentage includes me, even though it was the day after my 54th birthday that I graduated. In 1967, when I left Havelock school in Grimsby, there was no thought that I would go to university. My parents had pushed me into accepting—somewhat reluctantly—that I would stay on at school from 15 to 16 and do that extra year. That enabled me to take both CSEs and O-levels, which is interesting in view of the current debate on that subject, which I will return to shortly.
As has been said, in the 1960s and 1970s the opportunities for people to go to university were extremely limited. Not only was there no thought of my going to Oxbridge, but there was no thought of going to university full-stop. I progressed to the Grimsby college of technology, as it was then called, and did a business studies course. Thankfully, I was granted day release by my first employer to help me to do that course. That was the way forward for many people from a background like mine.
The school I attended—Havelock school in Grimsby—was a bilateral school. It had both a grammar stream and a secondary stream under the same roof, and there was movement between the two. I would say that, in reality, it was a perfect comprehensive. I was a borderline case in the 11-plus, as in so many things. My parents were somewhat disappointed, but they managed to secure an interview with the headmaster at Havelock in the hope that I could get into its S-stream—the special stream for borderline cases. Pupils could either stay in that stream or move into the grammar or the secondary stream. Those who were not particularly good at geography, for example, could take a CSE in that subject, but take an O-level in English if they were good at that. That arrangement seems to me the perfect bridge between the competing sides in the argument about grammar schools and two-tier exams. Not only did the school instil discipline—it was a disciplined environment—but it opened pupils’ eyes to opportunities. By present-day standards, the opportunities were limited—there was no real thought of 99% of the pupils going on to university—but the thought was instilled in them that they could progress beyond going to work “down t’dock”, as we said in Grimsby.
To digress for a moment, when we talk about declining education standards, I often wonder whether standards were all that high back then. A great many people in the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area simply went to work down on the docks, in the fishing industry, and down the road in Scunthorpe, the industry was steel. Those industries mopped up an enormous amount of unskilled labour, so the quality of education was never really tested.
Returning to my main theme, I wanted to throw into the argument the possibility of having bilateral schools—of perhaps allowing education authorities to consider that possibility and giving academies the freedom to form themselves into that structure. It is important that we extend social mobility across the board. Everyone needs opportunities, and schools are vital to providing them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, as it was to serve under that of Mr Hollobone earlier.
This is an extremely important subject, and I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on securing the debate, and on their excellent introduction, which helped to set it in a wide context. I pay tribute to the work of the all-party group on social mobility, and its excellent report, “Seven Key Truths about Social Mobility”, which has done much to inform the debate, both in Parliament and beyond.
The debate has been excellent and wide-ranging, with passionate speeches on both sides. The hon. Member for East Hampshire set, as I said, a strong context for the debate, and made the point that at each stage of the education and employment spectrum it is normal to blame the previous stages for social mobility problems. I can relate to that—I am sure that the Minister can too—because in my conversations about university admissions with vice-chancellors, they often say, with some justification, that what counts is what goes on before, rather than just what happens when they get involved.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles made a powerful speech, in which she touched on the importance of personal skills, confidence, resilience and emotional well-being, which I will deal with towards the end of my speech. That is a much under-discussed part of the wider debate. I am also glad that she was able to get back to the firm that so cruelly rejected her. Given that she went on to become a Secretary of State, that is a great example of social justice in action.
The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) made a plea for financial education, which I endorse, although I must confess that I am not sure that I could do the sums he set out in his speech without the aid of a calculator—given the looks on the faces of some of the other hon. Members present, I am not sure they could either.
I welcome the involvement of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) in the all-party group. Many of the issues that afflict her constituency also afflict mine. She is right that poverty should not mean a poverty of ambition, and we should all take that point forward.
The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) spoke powerfully about support for troubled families. He also spoke about grammar schools, and in Birmingham we also still have a grammar school system—I failed the 11-plus, which is a badge I wear with great pride. He made the important point that university is not the only route to social mobility, and we should celebrate other routes and life choices.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) reflected powerfully on his own experiences as someone not born in this country. I was struck by what the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) told us about her parents saying, when she was younger, that they wanted her life to be better than theirs. That is a key point for all parliamentarians, and one reason why we get into this work is our desire to see the current generation do better than the one before it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) spoke about the cultural change needed to get across to young people that their horizons are and can be much wider than they might think, might be told or might realise. He made the important link—something discussed in the all-party group report—between social mobility and teaching standards.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) confessed to having given unpaid internships in his office—I am glad he has moved towards paid ones—which raises the wider point of what we as Members of the House of Commons can do to promote internships going to people from a wider range of social backgrounds.
Finally, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) reflected that the individual life stories of the Members who have spoken today have informed the debate and brought to life the issues that we are considering. That is important—particularly so with social mobility, above almost any other topic—because, as parliamentarians, we bring our life experience to what we debate.
I have a slight temptation to focus my remarks only on the relationship between higher education and social mobility, given that both the Minister and I have a education brief. I will do my best, however, to resist that temptation and to focus on some of the wider points as well.
In government, Labour did a lot to begin to fracture the link between people’s history and their destiny. Our policies focused on extending the ladders of opportunity, especially through the Sure Start programme and the right to free early-years education, which is important because we know—as the all-party group confirms—that the point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between birth and the age of three. We dramatically increased support for schools with disadvantaged pupils, so the gaps in attainment between those from more and less advantaged backgrounds started to narrow. A recent university of Bristol study showed that family background had less influence on the results of those who took GCSEs in 2006 than it did on those who took the equivalent exams in 1986. The education maintenance allowance also dramatically increased participation rates post-16, and all of that sat alongside the expansion of higher education and the cementing of a widening participation agenda, which helped to make real gains in social mobility.
We made progress, but certainly not enough, and there is a long way to go. I am concerned that the cumulative effect of some of the Government’s current policies in education and higher education will set us on a backwards trend, with long-lasting and damaging consequences for social mobility. When the Minister responds, I will be grateful if he can tell us more about what the Government are doing to ensure that that is not the case in relation to four specific areas of policy.
First, in my experience—my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch made the same point—the removal of the EMA remains the biggest issue for young people in my constituency, directly affecting their ability to participate in education post-16.
My hon. Friend raises the issue about the education maintenance allowance, which we have discussed in the all-party parliamentary group. I am sure that she is aware that in Salford, several thousand young people were in receipt of the EMA. The situation now is that our local college has had to replace the EMA from its own reserves. It can manage to do that for a period of two years, but that is about to expire. As soon as the EMA was taken away, we saw the numbers of young people staying on at 16 decrease quite dramatically. As we used to be the worst place in the country for post-16 education, I share her concerns about the allowance, and I welcome her pressing the Minister on the matter. I hope that she will continue to do so.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. She is absolutely right and her constituency experience accords exactly with my own. Young people in my constituency use the EMA to pay for their travel—to be able physically to get to their place of learning—and books. I was really struck by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch when she said that somebody used it to pay for their electricity key, which shows the different ways that the allowance was used and how damaging it is that it has now been lost. We will continue to press the Government on the impact on participation rates of the removal of EMA.
We have already touched on the second policy area—that is unsurprising given the higher education element of my role—which is the trebling of tuition fees. Although almost all the attention is focused on 18-year-old would-be graduates, one of my biggest concerns is the impact on mature students taking first degrees. The number of those applications is down 11.9%. Mature students making the decision to improve their life chances by going to university were largely responsible for the gains that were made in widening participation in higher education, and they are one of the main reasons why we got so close to the 50% target set by the previous Labour Government for participation in higher education. The important point that was raised in the debate today as well as in the all-party group’s report is that our social mobility story should not end at 18. What happens later is important, too, and the ability of mature students to go back into university is an important part of that.
In my constituency, we have seen a trend in which children are doing better at school, which is great news, but at 18 a lot of young women from particular backgrounds are getting good results and then dropping out. That is one reason why UBS bank helped to support an event that I held for young women. There is a cohort who are going off without a career path and then having to get back on to a career path after they have had children, which is much more difficult. That illustrates my hon. Friend’s point.
My hon. Friend is right. There is the drop-off, and then the difficult decision to get back in is really important.
We have seen the Government axe the Aimhigher scheme that was designed to widen participation in higher education. I am concerned that the national scholarship programme will not be an adequate replacement for it in money terms and that it also disadvantages universities that recruit a large number of students from backgrounds in which we want to widen participation. The programme is also based only on data in relation to free school meals, which misses out those who come from further education colleges and also mature students
Finally, let me turn to the changes in the provision of information, advice and guidance. High-quality and accessible information, advice and guidance is crucial for ensuring that all young people know of the opportunities that are open to them. Providing the right support can make the difference to young people in determining their future pathway. Proper information, advice and guidance should not be exclusively available to young people from better-off backgrounds. The Government must ask themselves whether the changes that they have introduced will ensure that proper advice and guidance is there for the many and not just the few. There will be a gap in provision this summer as the funding for Connexions has finished, but the replacement for schools will not be coming online until September.
I was listening very carefully to the hon. Lady’s comments and to the catalogue of emerging policy. One of the elephants in the room on social mobility in our country is that we have a two-tier education system, with quite a high proportion of children going to independent schools and boarding schools. Much of that is allowed through tax subsidy or tax allowances. What is the Labour party’s position on the efficacy of that tax allowance in terms of social mobility?
I am not going to make tax policy on the hoof, but I would like to get to a position where independent and private schools are redundant because the same sort of education and quality of education is available in the state sector.
To finish my point about information, advice and guidance, there is real concern that good advice will not go to the most disadvantaged and those who need it most. Much of the work will now be done online, but we must recognise the importance not just of innovative high-quality and low-cost solutions, but the face-to-face element in the provision of advice and guidance. I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles said about the Government being able to learn more from organisations such as Future First, and schools throughout the country that are drawing on alumni to inspire and raise their pupils’ aspirations.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, I will not focus only on the brief that I shadow, because the debate is much wider. Social mobility is not just about changing the odds of young people from poor backgrounds making it to university. We must improve opportunities for those who do not make it to university. We must get away from the thinking that there is only one kind of success or only one pathway to success, and that everything else is a failure of some kind.
One of the biggest problems in our society is our collective and automatic assumption that if something is different it must be either better or worse. That holds us back, and the way in which we perpetuate class in our country is unnecessary baggage and very depressing. I would like to get rid of that, and two things jump out at me in relation to it: the value that we give to vocational education, and entrepreneurship.
First, vocational study should never be treated as a second-class option. The Government have a role to play in bringing that about, but the attitude of society as a whole is as important. I cannot help but be jealous of the position in Germany where middle-class parents boast about their kids doing great apprenticeships. We should do more to get to a place where vocational education is just as much a gold standard as academic education. We must make sure that there are good opportunities to switch between the two.
Secondly, entrepreneurship has an important role to play in increasing and improving social mobility. My boss, the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, recently made a speech about the link between entrepreneurship and social mobility. He told a powerful story of his father, who came to this country from Nigeria in the 1960s, and set up his own business. That gave his father opportunities that were denied to him elsewhere. It is clear that entrepreneurship has more of a role to play. I am pleased to see an increasing number of universities focusing on enterprise opportunities for their graduates and undergraduates, but we should guard against the “graduatisation” of entrepreneurship. It should remain an opportunity that is open to all in our society.
I want to pick up on the importance of the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles about skills around confidence, emotional well-being and personal resilience—the so-called public school confidence skills—by reflecting on my experience. As hon. Members can see, I am an Asian woman. I am also a practising and observant Muslim. That is an important part of my identity and how I choose to live my life. I was born and raised in Small Heath in Birmingham, which is a very diverse city where many people who look like me live. In Small Heath particularly, many people are like me and believe in the same God as I do. The local school I went to had lots of people like me. I went to a different school to do A-levels, and it was more mixed, but there were still plenty of people like me. Nothing in my previous life experience had prepared me for my first night as a law undergraduate at Oxford, where I was the only non-white face in the junior common room. I was certainly the only Muslim woman in the whole college, which had an undergraduate body of 300. For someone to enter a room and find that they are the only one of their kind is a weird experience, even if they are self-confident, as I am. Apart from being weird, I also found it intimidating. It took me a solid month before I could enter any room in my college, such as the JCR or the hall for meals, without taking a deep breath and saying a silent prayer,
When I was qualifying to be a barrister, I experienced the same thing on my first day as a pupil barrister in chambers, although this time it did not take me a month to normalise to being the only one of my kind. It took me only a couple of weeks, which was a good downward trajectory because, by the time I got to Parliament, it meant that I was not afraid. In fact, it had become a depressingly normal part of my existence.
I raise that point because, while I was at university, I was involved in the Oxford access scheme. When I graduated, I taught as a volunteer at a supplementary school. I have done lots of mentoring of young people from my kind of background—my race background, my religious background and my socio-economic background—and the one thing that I always try to focus them on is not how to do the interview or the application, but a sense of self-confidence, by which I mean not just innate confidence in themselves, which they might have anyway, but the skill of faking confidence when they do not feel it. That is incredibly important. The techniques include taking a deep breath before entering a room and looking people in the eye. They also need to be physically robust in order to make their presence felt and to not be intimidated. What we call soft skills are not soft at all—if people do not have them, they are hard. It is difficult for people to take such things on board if they have not been a part of their previous experience. I would like us to think more deeply about what more we can do to bring those things about.
In conclusion, it is clear that we have to intensify and broaden our approach to social mobility in the future, not just because social justice demands it, but because our capacity for economic growth requires it.
Thank you, Mr Rosindell, for chairing the debate; I also thank Mr Hollobone, who was in the Chair before you. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on doing an excellent job in bringing together the all-party group on social mobility.
My hon. Friend’s opening speech was excellent and included some great truths. It is true, for example, that everyone in the education system blames people in the stage behind for the problems that they face. I completely recognise that observation. He was also right to challenge some issues relating to social mobility, as was the right hon. Lady.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this debate has been not so much the front-of-house stuff, but the back story—the personal accounts that we have heard from several Members of their own experiences. I will not share my complete personal back story, but I will say that a lot of my family also came from Small Heath in Birmingham, and one of these days I will compare notes with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) on Birmingham and the trades in which my family worked.
I want to pick up on some of the important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, which are captured in the excellent report, “Seven Key Truths about Social Mobility”, which combines the best features of a think-tank pamphlet and a McKinsey PowerPoint presentation. He lists seven truths and I recognise a lot of them, but I would challenge him on two points in his report. The first is the statement:
“The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between the ages of 0 and 3”.
I realise that that is very much the view nowadays, as a result of which we have a different pattern of spending in Britain from the OECD average, with more spent on early years and less on other stages of the education process. We must beware of becoming Calvinists who think that everything is determined by early-year experiences. The Government’s approach in our report on social mobility, “Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers”, is to look at each stage of the life cycle. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) made an important point about going to university and graduating at the age of 54. It is a reminder that nobody’s fate is determined by their earlier experience.
People have the opportunity to break free and take the initiative. I meet exceptional examples of that. To take a classic case, a lone parent, perhaps aged about 30, who left school at 16 and has been busy raising kids, begins to think about what they will do with the rest of their lives just when their kids are at secondary school or even older. They suddenly think, “With my experience, I could be a social worker, join the police or become a nurse.” They want to go to college and university to get the qualification to enable them to do that. That is the kind of opportunity we need to continue to provide.
There is an interaction between the different stages of social mobility, in that often one of the best things that we can do for a child aged nought to three is provide further or higher education for their parent. The experience of the parent having an opportunity as a mature student is often an incredible investment in the child as well. To provide higher-quality early-year experiences, it is important that we have better qualified staff in child care, which in turn requires further investment in apprenticeships and college and university courses. The more I look at it, the more I am persuaded of the interaction between experiences at different stages, rather than a special priority for one stage.
I agree with the vast majority of the report, but I am trying to identify some areas of challenge. I agree that university is the top determinant of later opportunities, so pre-18 attainment is key. It gives people an important opportunity. The debate in Britain about what follows is sometimes rather fraught. There are two extremes. In the Chinese model, everybody sits an exam at 18, and those with the top 100 marks go to the university of Beijing, the next 100 go to Shanghai, the next 100 go somewhere else and everything is ranked by the marks.
The other extreme is the American model, where Harvard or Princeton mould the class. Ivy league universities have a view about the mix of people they want. They look for people who play sport and those who do not. They think about ethnic mix, alumnae and donors. There is a host of criteria. Someone must have reached a certain academic level, of course, but the institutions are explicit: they are moulding the class because they think that doing so moulds the future of America. It helps to shape the people who will govern and have leadership roles in America.
In Britain, we are somewhere in between. I am a complete meritocrat on this issue, but I do not think that a university in Britain has ever simply used the marks at A-level as the only criterion; they also try to assess who has the greatest ability to benefit from going to university. One encouraging thing about university is that, if anything, it is the first stage of the education process where people from more disadvantaged backgrounds outperform, rather than underperform. That is something that universities take into account when they look at how to maximise people’s chances of getting a good degree—a first or a 2:1.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire made an excellent speech. He made a series of shrewd observations, which we will draw on as we develop our social mobility strategy. The right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles also made an excellent speech, with a shocking example of social attitudes: the solicitor who nearly offered her a job, but did not. I hope I am not complacent, but I think—and hope—that that view of the world has long since gone. In my experience, including chairing the group on access to the professions, the legal, medical and accountancy professions are desperate to reach out to the range of talent across the country, regardless of background.
The right hon. Lady asked three specific questions, which I will briefly respond to. She talked about what was happening to widen the networks of people from the poorest backgrounds. There are limits to what Governments can do, but we will launch the new Inspiring the Future programme next month, following the success of Speakers for Schools. It aims to get into schools, especially in the more deprived areas; people from a range of careers and jobs will open kids’ eyes to what the possibilities are. We already have 800 volunteers—people who have achieved something, who know about a job and who can explain it persuasively.
On internships and unpaid internships, and going back to the right hon. Lady’s pressure for networks, internships have become an important part of routes into work. Therefore, we have kept the Graduate Talent Pool, which began under the previous Labour Government; I have confirmed this week that we are keeping it for three years. It is a web-based service with information on internships for people who might not otherwise be part of a network that provides them with such information.
Since its launch, the site has carried 47,000 vacancies from 6,000 employers, and 73,000 graduates have registered. Due to concerns about the exploitation of interns, we have made it clear in a recent update of the site that we have added a quality assurance process for any new vacancy, to ensure that it offers a graduate-level internship opportunity and complies with minimum wage regulations.
More widely, I assure the right hon. Lady that we are clear about minimum wage obligations. If something is employment, with the obligations that come with employment, such as set hours when people are expected to attend the workplace, the minimum wage applies. The Government are conducting a targeted enforcement operation in sectors where internships are commonplace and where we are aware of advertisements for unpaid work experience.
The right hon. Lady’s third and final question was about great employers.
Before the Minister leaves the subject of internships, I should say that I asked about the current anomalous situation whereby it is still lawful to advertise unpaid internships that are clearly jobs with set hours. That seems to be a contradiction in terms: if it is unlawful to have the job unless it is paid the minimum wage, I cannot for the life of me understand why advertising such placements, which on the face of it contravene national minimum wage legislation, is permitted. Will he look at the issue of advertising for such posts?
I will look at the issue but, because of our commitment to freedom of speech in this country, the regulation of what we can say or advertise is rather different from the regulation of the minimum wage, for instance. We have a higher and more demanding criterion before we say, “This form of communication is banned.” When we are aware of advertisements for unpaid work experience, and when it looks as if a sector has become particularly active with those, we engage in targeted enforcement through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
On businesses, I refer briefly to the social mobility business compact that we have introduced. Some 140 businesses have signed up already, involving 2.5 million employees. That is absolutely to do with businesses committing themselves to drawing on the widest range of talents.
Let me refer to some of the other lively contributions to the debate, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) on apprenticeships, which were also brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart). We are absolutely clear that higher education should not be seen as the only route into a well paid job. It is important that the classic, vocational route is available.
Indeed, one of the things that I am doing in the working group on access to the professions is to see whether we can reopen some of those non-graduate routes into accountancy or law that used to exist and were perfectly legitimate in the past. Nowadays, they might involve employers at some point down the track sponsoring one of their employees through university as a mature student, to get some extra qualifications in finance or law—mature students who have already done some practical work as an employee might get even more out of the university course.
We are doing our best, working with the professions that will ultimately decide, to ensure that those routes are opened up again. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock rightly referred to the work of my excellent colleague, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning. The Government’s record in expanding apprenticeships is evidence that we really are committed to them. We are way ahead of our target, having added more than 200,000 apprenticeships since the coalition took office.
I am not sure whether I should stray into the remarks on grammar schools made by my hon. Friends the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and for Thurrock, but I will just very briefly observe that what worked in the past as a device for social mobility does not necessarily work today. In Birmingham, I did sit the 11-plus, in the days when all of us, at every local primary school, sat in our rows of desks and did the exam. Nowadays, there is more tuition for the 11-plus, and more people who go to private schools up to the age of 11 to get themselves taught to pass the exam.
Although we respect the decision in parts of the country to keep grammar schools, the evidence is that the number of children from low-income backgrounds who pass the 11-plus in those areas and go to grammar schools has, sadly, declined. It might be that the schools do not work in the way they used to—as an opportunity—and that is one reason why the Government do not propose a return to selective education. Within schools, streaming and setting are, of course, very effective devices.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, and I have tried not to focus solely on higher education, but I absolutely agree with the points about mature students, and it was great to have at least one such student identify himself. We should not think of higher education as something that people do just at the age of 18.
When we consider the evidence from UCAS applications, we look particularly carefully at what has been happening with mature students. There was a bit of a surge in their numbers two or three years ago, and it is a bit early to say whether there is an underlying pattern, but, as I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West, despite the fears that people had about our fee proposals, the evidence so far from applications is encouraging.
My party—the Conservative Opposition, as it then was—was afraid that people would be put off applying when the then Labour Government introduced the £3,000 fees in 2005, and that is one reason why we voted against the measures. The evidence, however, was that the £3,000 fees did not have the feared effect, and that gave us some confidence that with a fees and loan system, in which no student had to pay up front, we could avoid such fears. The number of 18-year-olds is falling, due to a decline in the birth rate in the early ’90s. Allowing for the slight fall in the size of that cohort, the number of university applications from school leavers is down by about 2%, but the fall among school leavers from the poorest backgrounds is, if anything, rather less. We take some encouragement from that.
Finally, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire that the debate has been valuable. I am sorry that it has not been possible to cover all the excellent comments, but we will certainly draw on them as we develop the Government’s social mobility strategy.
This has been an excellent debate, and an opportunity to consider a wide range of issues, including work with troubled families, rigour at school, celebrating vocational routes, the role of student finance, and “HR, not social responsibility” at work, as the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) said.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) reminded us of the power of individuals and the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles reminded us of the crucial importance of one particular individual who appears in many of our personal stories: mum. She is the person who not only tells us that we can be all we want to be, but is there to make damned sure that we do whatever we need to do to get there. I am sure that we have all been struck by the personal stories, including the shadow Minister’s, and I will never forget the story of the man with the half-moon glasses. I hope that the stories remind us of some of the ways in which we have made great progress as a society on things such as racial and crass class prejudice.
I have been inspired—I hope that other Members have, too—by the work done by the many organisations, including PRIME, Future First and the Sutton Trust, and by many individual schools and teachers. What fellow Members are doing on apprenticeships, financial education and kids without careers is also inspiring.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate, and I particularly thank the Minister for the incredibly detailed and thoughtful way in which he directly addressed a number of the points that came up. He reminded us of how all the different issues interact, and that if we get everything right the whole will be that much greater than the sum of the parts. We have been reminded of how much there is to do, but also of the size of the opportunity.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).