I beg to move,
That this House has considered social mobility and the child poverty strategy.
I was tremendously moved and impressed by the depth of knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) and the other Members who contributed to the previous debate. It was a pleasure to listen to their contributions.
The second debate this afternoon is also on a very important topic on which there is a great deal of cross-party consensus. We may differ on some issues, but, like protecting children in conflict, social mobility raises a sense of passion, commitment and determination to improve things, which should be a matter for celebration among hon. Members. I look forward to their contributions.
I thank my fellow members of the all-party group on social mobility, some of whom are in the Chamber, although Baroness Tyler cannot be here because she is a Member of the other place. I pay tribute to her work on character and resilience, and on the manifesto she has published. I also pay tribute to the in-depth academic and practical information she has drawn together, which almost gives a new perspective on social mobility, and which we have debated for a considerable period. I will mention later a couple of the points she makes.
I also thank Alan Milburn, chair of the commission on poverty and social mobility. All the members of the commission are doing a tremendous job on behalf of the House. In the introduction to his “State of the Nation” report, he says he was appointed to hold the Government’s feet to the fire. He is pleased about that, and he has not pulled any punches in his recommendations. He has excellent people with him on the commission. In my view, they make not only academic observations, but practical recommendations not only for the Government but for employers, hon. Members, parents, families and citizens of our country. For the Government, taking the step to appoint the commission was brave, because having an external body that holds their feet to the fire is not always the most comfortable situation, as I can testify as a former Minister. However, external bodies give different views, information and perspectives. The report has therefore been tremendously helpful for all of us. The work that has been done is absolutely meticulous. The research conducted means that we now have a body of evidence on child poverty and social mobility that we did not have previously. That has been translated into pretty accessible language that I think most people can understand. The commission has given us a new impetus to take these issues forward.
The question we will all be asking ourselves at the outset is this: why does social mobility matter? Why is it the subject of regular debates in the House? Why, increasingly, are employers concerned about it? Why does it affect every bit of our community?
For me, this is a very personal issue. My mum and dad left school at 14. They did not have the opportunity to stay on into further education, let alone have access to higher education. They were absolutely determined that their children would have the opportunities that they had not had. My mum probably coined the phrase “Education, education, education” long before our previous Prime Minister did. That has been the sense for many years in our country: the people who did not have the educational opportunities, money and resources to pursue their own dreams wanted to make sure that the next generation would have that chance.
My mum—I just want to place this on record as a tribute to my mum—won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Arts when she was 14 years old. She was an immensely talented artist. Her father was at the war. She came from a very poor background and did not have the money to take up the scholarship in London. She was, therefore, unable to go. If anything, that absolutely redoubled her commitment to education. She took her first O-level at the age of 38. She took an A-level in English in her 40s. Her lifelong love of education was absolutely apparent. In our lives, sometimes the people in our families are our inspiration to try to make things better. She was certainly my inspiration.
I think the issue matters because it is about fairness. Most of us are committed to fairness and ensuring that, as far as possible, people have a platform to succeed and to reach their potential. It is also about merit—a characteristic that is deeply embedded in most of us in this country and in countries across the world. That sense of a meritocracy—that if someone is good enough they will be able to get on in life and break through barriers—is a really powerful driver.
It is also, perhaps in more prosaic terms, a financial issue. Research undertaken by the Sutton Trust states that if we do not tackle the issues of social mobility, the subsequent waste of talent and skills could cost this country £140 billion by 2050. There is an ideological justification, but also an absolutely compelling practical and financial justification too.
Where are we at the moment? I am afraid that the report does not paint a very happy picture:
“We see a danger that social mobility – having risen in the middle of the last century then flat-lined towards the end – could go into reverse in the first part of this century.”
It is part of Britain’s DNA that everyone should have a fair chance in life, but at the moment Alan Milburn warns that Britain could become “a divided country”. Those comments should make us all take a step back, reflect on where we are and redouble our efforts to make sure that the situation does not continue, and does not continue to get worse, in the coming years.
There has been some extremely good research by the Sutton Trust and I want to outline a few sharp bullet points that might help to put the debate in perspective. The state we are in now in the 21st century, in a modern industrialised, relatively wealthy affluent nation, causes us all a great deal of concern. Children in the poorest fifth of families are already nearly a year behind children from middle-income families when they start school at the age of five. I see this in my constituency day after day. I see children coming to school with speech and language problems—they are not even ready to access education. I see children, because of difficult family backgrounds, falling behind almost immediately when they come to school because they do not have the back-up from home and the community.
At the other end of the scale, 3,000 state-educated pupils achieve the A-level grades necessary to enter the country’s most selective universities, but who, for a variety of reasons, do not end up there. There are 3,000 children who are good enough academically, but are not able to take that next step into higher education. Four private schools and one elite college sent more students to Oxbridge over three years than 2,000 schools and colleges across the United Kingdom. State school pupils, when they do get there, are far more likely to get a 2:1 or a first class degree at university than their private school counterparts with the same A-level results. It is therefore not that children from working class backgrounds are not capable of achieving some extremely high academic outcomes; it is that there are barriers in the system that prevent them from achieving their potential.
Those are worrying facts. We clearly need to take action to ensure, as far as possible, that we get rid of the barriers that are not about how clever, bright, determined or hard-working pupils are. They are systemic barriers that have dogged us for generations. We are making some progress. I acknowledge that Government action is taking us along, but it is so slow and so inch-by-inch that I think there is more we can do more quickly to make that happen.
Alan Milburn, in a very important previous report, raised the ability of children to access professions. He talked about the rising use of unpaid internships to access many professions, whether law, journalism, fashion, couture and, dare I say it, politics. Internships increasingly became the way to access professions, but they were denied to many young people from less-affluent backgrounds. Working for free does not come cheap. Most of the internships that provide access to professions are based here in London. If people cannot afford accommodation and do not have the bank of mum and dad, it is virtually impossible to come to London and take them up.
Many companies have made progress on internships in the past few years. The social mobility business compact, working with employers, has begun to highlight the fact that offering long-term unpaid internships is utterly unfair. It is a bad practice and it should not be carried out by the best firms in our country. We now have a whole range of companies providing first-class paid internships, with proper development opportunities. Companies such as KPMG, Ernst and Young, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and Fujitsu, which operates in my area, are offering paid internships and developing young people’s skills and talents. CH2M Hill, a massive engineering firm, has just set up a scheme for paid internships, particularly to draw more women into science, engineering and consulting. Johnson & Johnson, the medical and pharmaceutical industries and BP are just some of the examples I know about where firms have changed their practice. In the past, they may have had unpaid internships, but now that practice is no longer acceptable. That is making a key difference to young people, not just in attaining education but in providing the access to professions and jobs that will ensure that they earn a decent income and can have an exciting future.
We used to have a lot of unpaid internships in the House some years ago. I am delighted to say that with the advent of the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme, which I helped to establish with the 100% backing of Mr Speaker, I think and hope the number of MPs who take people on unpaid internships can now be counted on the fingers of one hand—maybe just one or two Members. We all now recognise that that might have been the culture in the past, but excluding young people from working-class backgrounds from getting into politics is not just unfair to them: it is bad for our politics. We have a lot of complaints about the political class. I did some research. In 1979, 3% of MPs of all parties came from that career transmission belt of being special advisers working for Ministers and so on. At the last election, it was nearly 25%. We have a real problem getting people from diverse backgrounds to Parliament. I am pleased to say that Mr Speaker’s scheme is making a significant difference. I am grateful to the companies that have supported the scheme. I am beginning a dialogue with the Government on how we can ensure that it is sustainable in the long term. I am extremely encouraged by the all-party commitment to the scheme, which has been endorsed by the three party leaders. That is evidence of consensus across the House. I hope we can achieve sustainability.
There are problems at the beginning of life and with early-years development. There are problems with A-level achievement, problems with access to university and problems with access to professions. These are all systemic barriers.
However, as we get better at tackling each of those issues, the problem seems to settle in different areas. An example of that arose from a case in my constituency involving postgraduate education. At first I wondered why postgraduate education was a social mobility issue: surely, I thought, by the time people reached that stage, they would have gone through the system, obtained their degrees and so forth. However, when a young man in my constituency, Damien Shannon, applied to Oxford for a place on a postgraduate course, he was required to meet certain conditions. Not only did he have to find £11,000 for tuition fees; he also had to find just over £10,000 to cover living expenses, and he had to prove that the necessary liquid cash was available to him. The “living expenses” included entertaining, dining in hall, and being able to sustain an “Oxford lifestyle”.
Damien comes from Salford, and he is a very bright young man. He decided that, one, the requirement was not fair, and two, he could not possibly meet it. He could get a career development loan for the tuition fees, but there was no way in which he could get a loan to enable him to have an “Oxford lifestyle” in the form of dining and entertaining. He therefore decided to bring a legal challenge, and we have worked on that together for the last 18 months. I initiated a very good debate about the matter in the House, to which the Minister for Universities and Science responded. We had endless conversations with Oxford university, which, I am delighted to say, has now changed its admission requirements for postgraduate education, and has abandoned the requirement for applicants to show that they have sufficient living expenses.
Damien has taken up his place at Oxford. He is absolutely delighted, and he is doing really well. I want to place on record my admiration for a brave, clever, determined young man who was not going to let the system beat him. I have no doubt that he will have an absolutely brilliant career in the future. However, we really cannot have that in this day and age, in our top universities. We cannot allow them to hark back to another age when people may have spent slightly more time punting than they spent attending lectures and gaining academic achievements. There is still a wide range of barriers, and I think that we still have a long way to go.
The report also deals with poverty and poverty pay. Many children are finding it very difficult to achieve in the same way as their colleagues because of poverty. The Government will tell me that many more families are now in work, and that the number of completely workless households has been dramatically reduced. However, there is still poverty in families who are out there working hard, doing all the things that we ask them to do, playing by the rules and supporting the system.
The problem of the cost of living and low incomes is a really stubborn one. We need to deal with it, because that poverty is feeding through to children. It is very difficult for them to have a platform for achievement when they are living in difficult housing conditions with no room to do their homework, their parents are extremely low paid, and life is a real struggle. The report recommends that the minimum wage should be increased, and that we should try to give people access to the living wage. I think that that is the least that we can do if we want to give children and young people a chance to get on in life.
Another significant issue raised in the report is one to which I referred earlier. The issue of character and resilience is very new in this area. In the past, people used to say that children at private schools somehow acquired the character and resilience that they were taught in that environment, whereas children at state schools did not have the “grit” that is, increasingly, a foundation for success. As was shown in the “Character and Resilience Manifesto” produced by my noble Friend Baroness Tyler, that quality of character and resilience is not something that people are born with. It is not necessarily in their genetic make-up, and they do not have it because they come from the best families in the land. Character and resilience can be taught.
I have been fascinated to learn that character and resilience, and the ability to get on in life, are about three things. First, one must have a work ethic and be prepared to focus, concentrate and apply one’s mind to a task for a long period. That can be taught. Secondly, one must be prepared to accept deferred gratification and be prepared to invest for the longer term, rather than wanting success immediately. That means saying “If I work now, I will get results. I may get them a little further down the line, but it will be absolutely worth it.” Thirdly, in the context of social mobility, one must have the ability to bounce back from adversity. There is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that those three things can be taught, and they are crucial to the personal ability of someone to succeed in life.
Let me ask the Government specifically to look into what we are doing in our state school system to inculcate in youngsters from tough backgrounds the ability to work hard, focus and concentrate, the ability to accept deferred gratification—it will not all come now—and that essential resilience and ability to bounce back from adversity. If we do that, we shall be doing something which I think will be sustainable in the long term. Rather than developing a programme or a specific initiative, we shall be training our young people to recognise that it is their responsibility as well to acquire the tools that they need in order to make progress.
Alan Milburn has made some very interesting practical recommendations about what the Government could do in regard to educational attainment in particular. He refers to, for instance, the need to ensure that we can have the best teachers in the worst schools. We have talked about that for a long time. I remember, before I was in the Government, looking at our manifesto and asking “Is there a way in which we can reward the teachers who are prepared to come and teach in difficult inner-city schools where life can be really tough?” We have experimented with various schemes and programmes such as Teach First, but I think we must recognise that teaching in some of our most challenged schools is an extremely hard job. I should like to see something in the system, rather than a scheme or a project, which recognises that and rewards teachers for doing it.
The right hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, and I think that she and Alan Milburn are absolutely right to focus on the need to embed those incentives in the system. The combination of the pupil premium and the changes in accountability are systemic approaches to provide the wherewithal to reward people for coming in to teach in those schools, and to ensure that we do not have an accountability system whereby those in more prosperous areas are less likely to be found wanting than those in areas where the educational fight is fiercest.
Obviously I support the pupil premium, because it is a way of putting a substantial amount of money into the system to be targeted at the children and young people who need the most help. However, I have to say that I have been very disappointed by the monitoring and the accountability of the pupil premium. I know of many schools where—unsurprisingly, at a time of really tight budgets—it is being used to back-fill what could be described as conventional posts, rather than being targeted at the children for whom it was designed. The challenge for us is to ensure that the money is used in the way in which it was intended, to raise the achievements of the poorest children to the level of, at least, the average achievements of the rest. I shall refer to some schemes that have been able to do that, but let me say to the Minister now that better monitoring of the use of the pupil premium is essential.
Alan Milburn also talks about action by employers, and refers to the living wage, apprenticeships and fair internships. Those are practical measures, and if we can persuade all employers to adopt them, we shall make a difference. Alan also makes what I think is quite a brave suggestion; he is well known for being prepared to be brave. He talks of breaking the last “taboo”, which he says is parenting.
I am a former Home Office Minister who was responsible for the antisocial behaviour programme, the respect programme and the beginning of the troubled families programme. The Government are continuing some of that work, but at the time it was highly controversial territory: why were the Government telling parents how to bring up their children? However, all of us will know from our constituencies that in some families the responsibility for setting boundaries, and for supporting children and encouraging them to do their very best, simply is not there. I believe that there is still a huge gap in that regard. There should be more support for parents to enable them to do for their children what they no doubt want to do, but for various reasons are incapable of doing. All politicians should be as brave as the commission has been in saying that we need not just to talk about that problem, but to take action on it, before the family are so dysfunctional that we have to have a troubled families programme, with all the intrusion and intervention that that entails.
What practically can we do through early intervention? In his most recent Ofsted report, Michael Wilshaw said that the big problems of educational under-attainment have moved from the inner cities to some very poor coastal areas, remote areas and suburban areas. I was fascinated to see how that has happened. A lot has been said about the London challenge and how that has transformed schools in London. When I came into Parliament in 1997, about 22% of children in Salford were getting five A to C grades. Now the figure is 76%. There has been a fantastic transformation in the quality of the schools in my inner-city constituency. That is where the focus has been. The big problems of social mobility are now in communities that have not had access to such provision and are not well-off—they are quite poor and almost not on the radar. Michael Wilshaw has done us all a great service in highlighting that. He said:
“Today, many of the disadvantaged children performing least well in school can be found in leafy suburbs, market towns or seaside resorts.
There are stark consequences for our nation if we do not act with sufficient urgency.”
That reinforces the view I took when I was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that there were pockets of deprivation in otherwise affluent areas and that, for reasons to do with the data and the information we had, they were not addressed. What are the Minister’s plans to ensure that children in those areas receive the attention that they need?
I find it fascinating that, if there is early intervention in schools through a specific programme where there is evidence that it can make a difference, the transformation can be dramatic. I want to single out two schemes of which I have personal experience. The Place to Be scheme operates in six primary schools in my city and helps families and children who are in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Many of the children’s parents have problems with alcohol and drug addiction. Many of the children are not able to go to school sometimes because of family difficulties. Place to Be provides a support and counselling service. It has been operating with the pupil premium—that is the reason that money has been provided. I have seen evaluated evidence that is incredibly impressive. The rate of progress of the children in the worst families is now the same as the average rate of progress among the other children in those schools. It is almost a miracle, dare I say it. The head teachers who chose to use the pupil premium for that project have done a great service to their community.
The Shine on Saturdays scheme does Saturday schools. It does Serious Fun on Saturdays. It has a fantastic evidence base. Owing to the work it does on Saturdays, it is helping the most deprived communities. In many places, people will say, “We do not have the money to do that extra programme, on top of what we are already doing.” I ask the Minister to consider carefully—I have spoken to the Secretary of State about the matter—the possibility of mobilising social investment to fund such community-based interventions, which are able to make a dramatic impact and have a strong, rigorous evidence base. That social investment can be repaid through the savings that we make when those children get on in life, rather than causing myriad problems, including welfare dependency and criminal action, which cost us a fortune. It is an excellent way to invest for the long term. Now that we have an evidence base, we have a responsibility to find out how we can spread that across the country. I will declare my unpaid interest as a member of Big Society Capital’s advisory board. The things I have seen, which can be done if we mobilise private investment for public good, are impressive and I ask the Minister to take that into account in his closing remarks.
I had a couple of other questions for the Minister; I think I have raised most of the questions that I had. I have no doubt that he will be pressed for time. Social mobility is sometimes a relatively academic term for something that most of us know in our hearts: all families want their children to have a decent start, to get a good education to get on in life and to be able to bring up their own family. If we are not careful, we are in danger of not seeing that generational improvement. I do not want to live in a society in which people are not motivated to get on and do their best and succeed. It is a primary responsibility of any society to provide a framework in which that can happen.
I was always told growing up, “If you work hard, the world’s your oyster. You can do anything. You can achieve anything.” That has motivated me throughout my life. I want us to be able to say that to every child in this country—if they work hard, the world is their oyster, they are as good as anyone else in this country and they will succeed. It is a huge challenge for us and I look forward to what colleagues and the Minister have to say.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate and to follow the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who made a powerful speech. In her closing remarks, she put her finger on a key point: if children work hard, they are as good as anyone else and they can get somewhere. Perhaps at times it has been suggested too often in this country that it is not about working hard. Yesterday and the day before, 32 maths hubs around the country were launched. They are designed to ensure that the methodologies used in the eastern countries, which have such a big lead over us in maths education, are brought here. What are the core principles there? They do not say to someone who does well in maths, “You are very clever at maths.” They say, “You’ve worked hard and mastered those skills.” They emphasise the fact that with practice and application, every child can do well.
A number of years ago in Japan, all the children in a class would be judged by the performance of the weakest child in the class, which is an interesting concept of communal working on the basis that every child can learn. Sometimes in our education debate—it will be the primary focus today—we talk too much about differentiation and insufficiently about ensuring that every child comes up to a standard. More of them are capable of it than we have realised. Sometimes perhaps we have been so quick to recognise the different pace and different circumstances of each child that we lose the idea that they are capable of a lot more if we ensure that they are aware that if they work hard they will get on.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), for granting the opportunity to discuss this important issue today. As has been said, last week the Government published their child poverty strategy from 2014 and 2017. It has three main strands: supporting families into work, raising living standards and raising educational attainment. It is on the last of those three that I will focus.
The work of our education system will go a long way towards determining whether we are able to break the connection that the right hon. Lady touched on between demography, deprivation and destiny. Because of that, the Education Committee held a pre-appointment hearing to scrutinise the appointment of Alan Milburn as the chairman of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission two years ago. The Government have two main education priorities: raising standards for all and narrowing the achievement gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and the rest. Those aims underpins the reforms that the Government have undertaken in the past four years.
That is most obviously apparent in the introduction of the pupil premium, now extended to cover the early years. The right hon. Lady made some telling points about ensuring that that money is used to best effect. Perhaps too often in the Government in which she served, there was ring-fencing to try to ensure that ministerial will was translated into action. Often that had counter-productive results. What we have now is a framework in which Ofsted, when it inspects schools, looks at the way in which they use the pupil premium, and data are used to try to ensure that the performance of children on free school meals, or the “ever 6” is watched carefully from the governors downwards and informs their questioning of the head to ensure that every school offers opportunity to all those children. The right hon. Lady made strong points about the need constantly to ensure that that money is used for the purpose for which it was provided.
That thinking also lies at the heart of the structural changes made by Ministers. An example is the extension of free child care, and the refining of accountability structures so that teachers can focus on the whole class rather than just on the pupils at the C-D grade borderline. I welcome the fact that these reforms focus on the whole cohort of young people. It means that school leaders can place equal emphasis on pushing a child on an A grade up to an A* or perhaps—this would not be captured by the accountability mechanisms, but I would hope that the system would acknowledge it in spirit—pushing a child on an A* from their present score to a higher score still.
Too many children have been “warehoused”—I use the word advisedly—because those in authority believe that they are unlikely ever to contribute to the A to C grades in a school. They therefore see it as a sensible deployment of resources to assign the least able teaching practitioners to the most needy pupils. I do not recognise that as the right thing to do, but I recognise that it is what a head teacher would be tempted to do if they were being held to account and stood to lose their job if they failed to meet that threshold. The practice has had a detrimental effect.
This goes to the heart of a whole series of issues relating to incentives in the system, to which the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles and Alan Milburn have referred. It is important to get those incentives right. Otherwise, there is a risk that successive Governments who have a genuine commitment to closing the gap will create an uneven playing field for the key resource in education—namely, teachers. I am referring in particular to quality teachers. Not all teachers are the same; there is a massive difference between those at the top of the performance levels and those at the bottom.
As well as trying to increase the overall quality of the work force, we need to put in place incentives to ensure that teachers are deployed in the most equitable way possible. Some of the most idealistic people are committed to doing their best to help in the most deprived areas, but at the moment they are being incentivised to teach elsewhere. A head teacher in a prosperous leafy suburb is far less likely to be fired than one in a deprived inner-city school. The same is true for department heads and other teachers. The Government say that they want to close the gap, yet the key resource—quality teachers—is being incentivised to roll down the hill towards where they are least needed.
This reminds me of the Select Committee’s recent report, “Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children”, which found that this was not just a boy problem. It was thought that white working-class boys had a particular problem, but the report showed that white working-class boys and girls now constitute the lowest performing ethnic minority group. One of the most telling pieces of information I saw during that inquiry related to what free-school-meals children were achieving in the four different Ofsted categories of schools. The percentage of such children getting five good GCSEs—grades A to C on the current measure—in inadequate schools was about 25%. In outstanding schools, the figure was 50%. There was a 100% increase in the number of children from the poorest groups getting five good GCSEs. The difference between the inadequate and outstanding schools for children not in the poorest group was only 50%.
That reinforces the long-standing view, which the Committee has examined, that poor children are peculiarly sensitive to the quality of leadership and teaching in their schools. This is not just a social equity point; the pupils that we need to get the most effective teaching to are the poorest children. They are also the ones who are the most responsive to it, and if they are provided with it, they can do a great deal better.
I support initiatives designed to help talented youngsters from deprived backgrounds to achieve great things. Ultimately, however, the goal of increasing social mobility is best served by taking action at system-wide level, which will benefit children of average and below-average ability as well. I am often told that this country is dominated by a public school elite, but it is frequently people from poorer backgrounds who have made it to the top who tell me this. There is some truth in the observation, but those powerful people from poor backgrounds are often obsessed by people like themselves. A lot of the social mobility agenda appears to be about getting a tiny number of very bright kids out of the poorest homes and into the top universities and the top jobs. That is indeed an important aim, but the question of whether someone goes to the university that is ranked 30th rather than second is not our society’s biggest problem.
The biggest problem in our society is that we do such a dismal job for those people who are not only poor but do not have massive academic ability. They are not hopeless, however. We know that, if they have the right teaching, they can do well. Our problem as a society is that so many young people end up on the dole. In other countries, such as Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, the education system does not leave similarly disadvantaged people in the dole queue; it enables them to enter employment.
I am just throwing this into the debate because social mobility is very popular with people such as Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust, which does fantastic work. He is from a fairly underprivileged background and has reached the top. I say to him that the challenge is not people like him. It is not our biggest problem if people like him end up in middle management instead of becoming multi-millionaire philanthropists like him. Our biggest problem is that so many people have lousy, miserable, deprived lives because we did not give them the basic tools that they needed, along with a bit of self-belief and the idea that if they worked hard, they could do maths and pretty much anything else they wanted to do in life. I just throw that in to be controversial.
It cannot be emphasised too often that the key lies in the quality of teaching. Professor Eric Hanushek from Stanford university, working with Professor Steve Machin and Richard Murphy from the London School of Economics, calculated that one year with a very effective teacher adds an extra 25% to 45% of an average school year to a pupil’s maths score performance. There is an idea that there is an enormous difference between a teacher in the 90th percentile and one in the 10th percentile. The figures that I have already mentioned show that good teachers have a peculiarly positive impact on children who have less support at home, and a peculiarly negative impact on those same children as well. The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who gain an extra year’s worth of learning under very effective teachers, compared with poorly performing ones.
These findings underline the importance of good recruitment and teacher training, which are critical. They also show that we must ensure that the best teachers work where they are needed the most. In its 2013 report, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that fewer than a third of schools in the most deprived areas in the north-east had teaching rated as good or outstanding, compared with 85% in the least deprived areas. That this does not have to be the case is shown, as the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles said, by the statistics from London, where 77% of the teaching in the most deprived areas was good or outstanding. We need to put in place the right incentives to encourage the best teachers and school leaders to work in those schools. Governing bodies’ newly granted flexibility to design attractive pay packages to recruit and retain teachers will help, especially when coupled with the additional financial firepower of the pupil premium for schools that serve particularly deprived communities.
Linked to this, we also need to encourage schools to work together to share expertise. The Education Committee has recommended that the Government should widen the funding available to schools to support collaboration beyond academy sponsorship, so that it could be used to assist other partnerships. The Government’s own figures provided to the Select Committee in February showed that the majority of academies were not currently part of a formal partnership. More needs to be done to build on the greater collaboration that exists in our schools, between schools in academy chains and across academy groups as well as between academies and other maintained schools. We need to go further to ensure that we have the right incentives in place to make that collaboration genuine and much more prevalent than it is now.
The Select Committee also recommended that the Government reintroduce targeted seedcorn funding for sustainable partnerships between independent and state schools. School leaders could be encouraged to sign up to partnerships by introducing the excellent leadership awards proposed by Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wilshaw, which would be available only to those who supported underperforming schools in disadvantaged communities. Never again should anyone be able to be seen as a national leader in education or a significant player in our education system—or to be given an award of any sort—if they are not working in some of the deprived communities. We have to make working and being successful in those communities the sine qua non of recognition of someone doing the best job in the toughest of circumstances.
On other possible measures, the Education Committee has advised that it would be helpful if school accountability measures could be redesigned to incorporate encouragement for schools to work together. I am not yet clear exactly what that would look like. Head teachers must be held to account for the performance of their schools, but we must consider how we ensure that someone’s work in collaboration with others is recognised and encouraged. When considering how to support pupils from deprived backgrounds we need to remember that patterns of deprivation are complex. Ofsted’s “Unseen children” report highlighted that the places where the most disadvantaged children are being let down are, as the right hon. Lady said, now no longer so much in the inner cities, but in rural and coastal areas. In 2012, four of the bottom five performing local authorities on attainment outcomes for pupils on free school meals were Peterborough, West Berkshire, Herefordshire and the Isle of Wight. The weak performance of many schools in rural and coastal areas is yet another reason, alongside basic fairness, why launching a national funding formula that is based on need rather than on skewed political priorities should be such an important priority for the Government.
In the relatively short time available to me, I wish to discuss a second area where performance needs to improve if we are to increase social mobility: careers advice and guidance for young people. At the moment, organisations ranging from Ofsted to the CBI and to my Select Committee are clear that careers provision in schools is patchy in its availability, too often underwhelming in quality and frequently affected by perverse incentives, such as those that discourage some struggling schools from advertising further education or apprenticeships properly for fear of losing the funding that follows the pupil and because of the need to keep pupils sitting on seats. For too many school and college leaders, in a system with very sharp-edged accountability structures, careers advice and guidance is simply not a priority. If it is to improve, we need more challenge in the system. The Department’s development of destinations data, showing where pupils go on to work and study, may help to build this challenge in the medium term, although they also may not be the silver bullet that some hope for. Time will tell how useful the data are, not least in driving behaviour and accountability in schools.
A more immediate such challenge can be posed by school governors, particularly where the school appoints a designated careers governor to focus on this area—that person could be from a local employer. That is what is recommended by the Humber local enterprise partnership, which has just published its gold standard assessment criteria for schools in Hull, East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire. The document sets out, in comprehensive detail, the work that schools and colleges should be doing to provide a first-class careers education, and I recommend it to Ministers. Its stipulations include a requirement that schools offer young people face-to-face careers guidance and that employer engagement and external expertise are integrated into the programme through mentoring, work experience and enterprise clubs. Too often, it seems as though schools can be hermetically sealed worlds with their own drivers, cut off from the real world into which the young people in them will come blinking, and too many will be left on the dole as a result. We need to open up the schools and allow the world of employment into them in multiple ways. I know that Lord Lucas is working on a programme to get employers to help to do the practicals that will be part of the science A-levels in future; they will move to being on a pass/fail basis because of the difficulty of externally monitoring standards there. If employers are getting involved in practicals in all our sixth forms, that will not only help to embed a careers perspective into that learning, but it will make the learning richer and more interesting, and make the practical skills learned seem relevant in an exams system that might have appeared to have downgraded their importance.
The local enterprise partnership gold standard stipulations also include targeting and prioritising those most at risk of disengaging from learning or of becoming NEET—not in education, employment or training. The Humber gold standard is being piloted in a small number of local academies and maintained schools, with a view to a roll-out across the LEP area from this autumn. There will be lessons to learn from the pilot experience, but this approach, which is being complemented by an integrated online portal and the employment of dedicated advisers, appears to be a potential model of its kind. Helping young people to make informed choices about the courses they take and the careers they follow is vital to boost their success in finding employment.
A couple of years ago, the Education and Employers Taskforce undertook a major survey of 15-year-olds, asking them where they thought they would be working in years to come and then mapping their responses against the national data on where the jobs are expected to be. It showed a horrific mismatch. If I recall it correctly, it showed that 29% of young people thought they were going to work in culture, media and sport, even though fewer than 5% of jobs are expected to be in those areas. It showed that only 5% of young people expected to work in finance, yet 20% of the jobs are expected to be in that area. We have to find ways of making this information available to young people and their parents, not so that they can discard their dreams, hopes and desires, but so that they can be informed by the realities of the labour market when they make their choices, both in school and beyond.
The ultimate goal of the £57 billion a year that the Department spends is to help young people get on in life. Getting a decent job is the first step in climbing the ladder in a socially mobile society, as the Government’s child poverty strategy acknowledges. This is a huge and complex area of policy, and I look forward to hearing the thoughts of colleagues and the Minister today. When considering this issue, we must remember that the extent to which social mobility is achievable goes to the heart of who we are and what we are about as a nation, and what we achieve in this area for the next generation will determine the sort of country Britain will become.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart). I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on securing this important debate and launching it with such an excellent, passionate speech. I also congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on granting the time to discuss this study, which was published last October by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. I have a particular interest in this issue for several reasons, the principal one being that the commission’s chair made a very well-received speech last year at Springburn academy, in my constituency. The experiences of my constituents in communities suffering from multiple deprivation will form the context to my contribution.
My parents, like those of my right hon. Friend, both left school before the age of 16. They had to work hard in jobs as teenagers, because that was needed in order to provide for the rest of the family. The concern that many millions of people across this country have is that their dream of seeing their children do better than they did—a dream we thought would continue through generations to come—is in danger not only of failing to be realised, but of actually going into reverse unless we make big policy changes. I also endorse entirely what my right hon. Friend said about the need for universities and colleges to reach out and be open to talent in every part of the country, regardless of someone’s ability to pay or family connections. That was a big part of my job when I was a university admissions tutor in London and in Glasgow. Links between universities, colleges and schools are central to breaking down the old boy and old girl networks that are too prevalent in many professions and in our politics.
The underlying causes of child poverty are numerous and its solutions complex, but there should be a commitment by all Members across this House to end it. There are real divides of wealth and opportunity in every part of these islands. It cannot be the mark of a decent society that, in the ward in which my constituency office is based, nearly one in every two children is in poverty, while just a few minutes away, in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), the number stands at only one in 12. Some in this House might envisage the answer as being the creation of new state borders across these islands, but the more progressive solution is to bring down the barriers that hold back too many of our talented young people. The concern that many Members will have is that the detail of the Government’s child poverty strategy simply does not meet the scale of the commission’s report, or indeed the need of the people whose voices deserve to be heard in this debate.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that, with no change in current policies, there will be big rises in child poverty. I hope that this debate will give the Government an opportunity to reflect on that and to work with the Opposition on a long-term approach to defeating and ending child poverty.
The first key point is that we are facing a crisis in the nature and security of employment that previous generations in recent times did not encounter in the same way. Global flows of labour, services, goods and capital and the hollowing out of the jobs market, which saw the loss of tens of thousands of skilled manufacturing and construction jobs, has meant that there is an even bigger premium on skills for people at every stage of their working lives.
Glasgow Kelvin college, which sits across the road from my constituency office, is now the beating economic heart of my constituency. It gives young people from very difficult family backgrounds—I am talking about backgrounds in which there is alcohol abuse, violence in the home or drug abuse—the first, second or third opportunity to get the literacy, numeracy or other vocational skills that are required to get the jobs of today and the future. It is only by doing that that we will begin to see genuine shared prosperity across this country.
Two weeks ago, the principal of that local college told me that nearly one young person in five in the north and east of Glasgow lacks skills at even level 3. If we continue with that level of illiteracy and innumeracy, we will not see a rise in social mobility in our country. That is the scale of the crisis that we see in one of the poorest parts of these islands.
The analysis published by the OECD last autumn, with data from England and Northern Ireland—Scotland and Wales were not included—also provides us with a stark warning about reduced living standards in the future compared with other countries if we fail to get to grips with the skills agenda. In the decades to come, inequality in skills will be as big a barrier to a good life as inequality of financial wealth.
I hope the Government will work with the Opposition to look at the impact of the 16-hour rule on many of our colleges. Recently, I spoke to some young people who said that they are unable to get state support if they want to train and improve their skills to level 3 or above at a local college. The rule also limits what courses colleges can offer to improve skills. My local college principal is excited about the prospect of removing that rule and designing new courses that would allow young people to improve their skills and be able to get into the employment market.
Recently, members of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, of which I and the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who is in his place, are members, saw the huge benefits that come to our society and economy from strong links between business and universities. We must break down the barriers that suggest that universities are ivory towers. Universities give people real skills and experience in engineering, which is the kind of career that we need if we are to thrive and see opportunity flow throughout the country.
Secondly, the biggest reason for the rise in wealth in many households in the past 40 years is the increase in the female employment rate. If we are to continue that progress, which is in danger of being reversed, we need to get real about the need to invest in quality, affordable child care as that is the biggest barrier to some 1 million women being able to get back into the labour market.
I hear over and over from mothers in my constituency that the costs for after-school care are rising and that the hours of child care that they need even to work part-time simply are not available. In an era when public spending will remain tight, we need to ensure that we invest available funds in building institutions for people in their own communities, recognising that social action without state support and vice versa will not bring about the permanent reductions in poverty that we seek. In an era of tight public spending, I urge the Government to work with the Opposition to see how we can increase investment in child care. It is essential to our country’s future and to reducing the inequality gap.
Thirdly, the Government should think again about the design of the universal credit system, if it ever gets off the ground in any meaningful way, and about the tax credit system overall. As Gingerbread and other charities have pointed out, the new system will mean that tens of thousands of mothers in two-earner households with children will face an uphill battle to be better off in work should they work more than 20 hours a week. The tax and benefit system ought to be rewarding such households, not setting a cap or limit on their aspirations or efforts. I urge the Government to look at these rules and at the work allowance for universal credit to ensure that mothers and families do not lose out as a result.
Fourthly, we need to become a living wage society. Two out of every three families in which people are in work are now poor and they see little way of improving their standard of living in the future. More hours at work are not available, and pay is continuing to fall in real terms even now. As few as three in 10 of the people who go out to work in my constituency bring home a living wage. Encouraging employers to pay a living wage to their staff will have the benefits of reducing staff turnover, contributing to greater productivity, which is stagnant in our economy, enhancing satisfaction at work and helping to reduce the bill for tax credits and housing benefit.
The Government can also use their procurement powers to favour living wage employers. They should also be inviting the Low Pay Commission to revise its remit to give proper forward guidance on raising the minimum wage across the economy and to examine the case for a higher sector-by-sector floor so that as many people as possible can be taken out of the low-wage economy. Nearly 3 million people have been trapped on pay around the minimum wage for five years or longer. Without a ladder out of that low-paid trap, they will never see an improvement in their living standards and we will face mass inequality in this country.
Fifthly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles has said, we need new pathways to boost social mobility, which is showing worrying signs of reversal. Too few people on low incomes, for example, have the opportunity to save, so the gap between those who have capital, whether it is in a home or another vehicle, and those who do not have capital or any savings at all is growing. Not only in discussions in this city about Thomas Piketty’s book but on the doorstep in every community across the country, we see the impact that that increase in asset inequality is having on communities. A young person might be unable to save to get the car that would allow them to get their first job. Other people might be unable to save to get the money together to allow them to take up a university course. Courses for adult learning are also being cut, particularly in Scotland because of some of the misguided decisions taken by the Scottish Government. The lack of assets is a driving factor in the growing inequality between our poorest communities and other parts of our society.
We also know that the professions have to throw open their doors. I have experience from the law, which has some good and innovative schemes to include people from difficult backgrounds. I know from my experience as a university lecturer, however, how difficult it was for people to get pupillages to become barristers just because they came from certain universities. The law and other professions must break down these barriers. We must remove these old boy and old girl networks if we are to see a proper meritocracy in our country, and see people who have the talent given the opportunities they deserve.
There is nothing inevitable about poverty. Inequality is not a natural state for any society. Let us hope that this debate can serve the purpose of ending the stop-start approach we have seen in policy in this area for too long. More opportunities and a fairer society are not optional extras if we are to pay our way in the world. In the 21st century, they will be essential for this country’s success.
I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject, and I support many of the points made by Members on both sides of the House.
It is a cause of great shame that in the 21st century the best indicator of a child’s future outcomes remains their social class. Education is one of the most important tools we have to effect change. Quality education can transform a child’s life chances, yet over several decades our education system has not adequately driven social mobility.
Poor children are, however, doing better at school. The proportion of children on free school meals getting five good GCSEs including English and maths increased from 31% in 2010 to 38% last year. That is welcome, but the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers remains too wide.
The pupil premium is supporting the progress of students from poorer backgrounds. It is vital that head teachers retain the freedom to use this funding in a way that provides the greatest benefit to the circumstances of those it is intended to support. It also vital, however, that head teachers can make well-informed spending decisions through an evidence-based understanding of what works. The Education Endowment Foundation is providing resources to help schools identify the most effective interventions and its toolkit is now used by nearly half of all school leaders, but the attainment gap opens at a very young age, before children have even started school. The Sutton Trust believes that there is a 19-month gap at the start of school between the most and least advantaged children.
The coalition has taken important steps through the provision of 15 hours of free early-years education for disadvantaged two-year-olds, which is so important because this is the age at which the attainment gap becomes detectable, and I strongly welcome the published consultation on the new early-years pupil premium for disadvantaged three and four-year-olds. Just as schools have been learning how to get the most out of the pupil premium, it is also vital that early-years settings have the tools and evidence they need to ensure that the early-years pupil premium will help youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds.
One of the most effective interventions would be to attract more highly qualified early-years specialists, and I am encouraged that the remit of the EEF has recently been extended to include the early years. The challenges in raising awareness of what works in the early years will be different, owing to the diversity of provision, but this is important work.
At every stage of a child’s education, the greatest support that a school or provider can give comes through the quality of its teachers and work force. Liberal Democrats believe that all teachers in state schools should hold qualified teacher status, or be working towards it. Recruiting, training and retaining a highly skilled teaching work force is crucial for all young people, and particularly for those from disadvantaged families.
To improve social mobility, we need to encourage the strongest teachers into schools that serve high numbers of disadvantaged children. We also need to support the continuing professional development of teachers and ensure that research is applied to classroom practice, perhaps by encouraging a profession-led royal college of teaching.
One of the Liberal Democrats’ proudest achievements in government is the increase in the income tax threshold, which will rise again to £10,500 next year. In October, the national minimum wage will rise to £6.50. The combined effect is that every person working full time on the national minimum wage will pocket £1,579 more from their earnings than in 2010. As has been highlighted in the debate, there is also a role for a living wage based on local circumstances for low-pay households, and I am delighted that the Houses of Parliament have this week been accredited as living wage employers. Aviva, which employs around 6,000 people in Norwich, has recently joined other employers in my constituency by committing to be a living wage employer. I encourage others to follow its lead, and I commend in particular the work of the Norwich living wage campaign, which is looking at how we can do that. The Government could build on their own approach to making work pay by encouraging more employers to pay a living wage, starting with Government and public sector employers and their contractors.
Finally, I refer briefly to an unresolved question regarding the definition of child poverty. The previous Government worked to a relatively narrow definition based on relative income. Using this as a driver for policy comes with perverse risks—for example, Governments would find it easier to reduce relative child poverty by freezing the state pension over a period of time. Doing so would take many children closer and over an arbitrary median income line, but would make absolutely no difference to the lives of those in poverty.
A relative income definition of child poverty by itself, therefore, fails to capture the experiences and barriers faced by those in poverty, such as health inequalities, educational attainment and quality of housing. An effective definition of child poverty should include relative and absolute poverty, but it must also account for the causes and consequences of poverty. An effective definition of child poverty would become the driver of Government policy in this area, with appropriate indicators providing the accountability for Government action as we seek to eliminate child poverty by 2020.
There are few issues more important than ensuring that no child in a poor household grows up expecting a lifetime of enslavement by poverty. The distribution of opportunity is a key indicator of the fairness of a society, and it is our duty to ensure that where children start off in life should not determine where they end up in life.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this important debate, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) on securing it. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that his Committee has done on crucial aspects of social mobility, including most recently the report on poor white children, and to the right hon. Lady for not only talking about these things but doing them in a practical way, not only in her constituency but more broadly. She is to be commended and thanked in particular for the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme. I benefited from having one of the fantastic young people on the scheme, who has gone on to work for the civil service.
For so many of us, opportunity for the many, making society fairer and relieving poverty are the things that brought us into politics in the first place, and they go to the heart of today’s debate. Bringing up the rear of the debate, as I do, there is the tiniest danger that I might repeat some of the things that have gone before, but I see that as positive as it reflects the commonality across the House on some of the challenges that we face.
There are big challenges today. We have entrenched multigenerational poverty in parts of our country, massive geographical differences, and social mobility that is low by international standards and seems to have been stagnant over a number of decades. For the avoidance of doubt, none of these issues has arisen since 2010, or indeed since 1997, and will not be solved within the term of any one Government. But we have to get our act together and work together because whatever the problems are today there are more difficult headwinds coming tomorrow in the form of globalisation, the further effects of technological change and the differential effect that has on people, whether their job is enhanced and enabled by the computer or is in competition with the computer. Those effects are partly responsible for the hollowing out of the labour market that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) referred to, where there are more jobs in the so-called knowledge economy at the top of the scale, lots of jobs in the low wage service sector at the bottom of the scale and relatively fewer in between.
We must think about mobility, fairness and distribution within our society, but we must also think about those things collectively on behalf of our society, relative to the rest of the world. The two go hand in hand, because unless everyone’s talents are optimally deployed, economic efficiency is impossible.
I think that the Government are on the right track. The child poverty strategy is right to focus on the root causes of poverty, because although cash transfers can alleviate and mitigate poverty, they cannot cure it. Curing it, of course, is about many things, including regulatory measures, such as the national minimum wage, and tax, but it is also about bearing down on the extra costs incurred as a result of being poor. It is about building more homes, because the single biggest cost in most people’s lives is rent, and we will not solve that issue structurally until we have more housing. It is about affordable credit and trying to help people to save and build up a cushion of resilience against the nasty shocks that life inevitably brings. Most of all, it is about work: getting into it and getting on in it, and building up the skills required to do that. I am proud to support a Government who are grasping the nettle on welfare reform, especially through universal credit, and addressing the crucial issue of work incentives.
I am also proud that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness said, everything that the Government are doing on education—I pay tribute to the Schools Minister, who is sitting in front of me, and his colleagues—is about both raising the average level of attainment and narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor. We see that most obviously in the pupil premium, but it is in so many other measures as well, such as the early-years extensions. We also see that in measures, such as the English baccalaureate, that act as signalling devices to give young people a clear message about which subject choices will keep their options most open in case that advice is not forthcoming from other directions.
I will focus the rest of my remarks on social mobility. When people talk about social mobility, they are generally talking about one of three subjects. They often assume that everybody else is talking about the same thing, but they are distinct subjects that are in danger of being conflated. The first subject is what I call breaking out, meaning breaking out of severe poverty. That is the link between social mobility and child poverty. The subject at the other end is what we might call stars to shine, which is about nurturing outstanding talent. My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness talked about how that sometimes develops into an obsession with a relatively small number of people who do amazing, stellar things, going from very humble backgrounds to running the world. The danger is that we forget the third group, the 70% or 80% in the middle, where social mobility is about helping everybody to get on, to be the best they can be, to make the most of their talents and to achieve some security in life.
The three policy areas that I want to focus on cross-cut those three subject areas. I want to focus on teachers, parents and character development. We know that education is fundamental to social mobility. At the heart of the social mobility debate is a close correlation between the circumstances, social class and income of parents and the eventual circumstances, social class and income of their children—but it is not a direct causal link. Rather, disadvantage among parents tends to be associated with low educational attainment, and it is that which drives the child’s eventual circumstances. If we can break that link between poverty among parents and low educational achievement we can achieve a good degree of social mobility.
The pupil premium is the structural measure that enables many of the initiatives for doing that, but it does not actually tell us what to do. The right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles alluded to that, as did the hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright).
Thanks to the Educational Endowment Foundation and others, we now know more about the things that can make a difference. We also have to face up to some of the things that apparently do not make a difference but are favoured policy areas of lots of people in this House and elsewhere, such as reducing class sizes a little, which, according to the data, does not seem to make a huge amount of difference, or the deployment of additional teaching assistants, which again, according to the data, does not seem to make a lot of difference. I can see people looking at me as though I must be mad to suggest that. These are still controversial things to say in such debates.
What we do know, and I think everybody can agree on, is that the most important thing in education is the person standing at the front of the room. When the Secretary of State says that we have the best generation ever of teachers in this country, he is absolutely correct. A number of things have raised the status of teaching, one of which is Teach First. The figures are remarkable, even compared with when I was at school. A couple of years ago, 6% of Russell Group graduates and 10% of Oxford graduates applied to be teachers. Teaching has become one of the top graduate employers at our great universities. That, in itself, is a good thing.
It is also true—this is another controversial thing that one sometimes finds it difficult to say—that qualifications alone are not a great predictor of who is going to make a great teacher. When I served on the Education Committee, we produced a report on attracting, training, retaining and developing teachers. When we tried to address the question of what makes a great teacher, we kept finding ourselves unable to answer it, except to say, “You know it when you see it.” In having great teachers, we need to start with the premise that we have to see it in order to be able to know it.
Teaching is a very high-stakes profession. It is one of the few occupations left where the assumption is pretty much that someone who starts in it at 21 will still be doing it in their 60s. It is a massive decision for someone to go and do an undergrad degree in teaching or a postgraduate certificate in education. I think we need more auditioning in teaching. If we know it when we see it, we have to be able to see the person have a go at teaching, not just at the stage of interview for a post in a school but in pre-initial teacher training. People also need more opportunity to see it in themselves. It is very difficult for anybody to know whether they would make a great teacher—I am pretty sure I would not—and they need opportunities to see that in themselves. I would welcome more taster sessions for undergraduates who might think about doing a PGCE or sixth formers who might think about doing an undergrad degree in teaching.
There is another side to this, I am afraid. People say quite readily and easily, “Everyone remembers a great teacher.” The truth is that we can all also remember someone who really was not a great teacher. We cannot just wait a generation or two generations for brilliant teachers to come through. There is a big challenge today in making sure that continuing professional development is good. Slightly more controversially, there is the issue of performance pay for teachers—not as a way of punishing those who are not so good but encouraging those who are good to stay in the profession and rewarding them accordingly.
One of the lessons from the London Challenge, which we do not see so much in the reports but always hear from the people who ran it—who were absolutely at the top of it—was that a key aspect was the attitude of not quite ruthlessness but an intense focus on quality of leadership in London schools in saying, if it was not working out, “There’s another job for you somewhere, but this one is not quite the right one for you.” We need to have a great focus on making sure that we have the right people in place.
There is a group of people who are far more important even than teachers, and they are, of course, parents. Everybody who has ever looked at social mobility knows that the earlier the involvement in a child’s life, the more impact—the more leverage—it is possible to have on where they end up. Between years zero and five, children are not with teachers, nursery workers, the early-years work force, or whomsoever, all that much—they are with parents. Studies of children who succeed against the odds—who are born into backgrounds and circumstances where all the academic literature would predict they are not going to do well but manage to break out from that and do, in fact, do well—suggest that that has a lot to do with parenting style. We can define that to the nth degree and in a very complicated way, but I would use “books and boundaries” as shorthand for the parenting style that emerges.
As the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles has said, Alan Milburn has called parenting the last taboo in public policy, and he is right. It is a scary thing to talk about and I think that everybody is reticent to do so. There is good reason for that: nobody wants to try to tell parents how to bring up their children. Many people probably feel qualified to advise other parents on how to do so, but it is dangerous territory for the state or, indeed, anybody else. It is vital, however, that we somehow start to take steps to break through the taboo, do more work in this area, build up knowledge and find new ways to provide support to parents when they want it.
Speaking of parents and parenting, I am reminded of another vital factor in social mobility—character. We all know of kids from among those we grew up with who got either no or one or two GCSEs—or, from my generation, O-levels—and have gone on to do brilliant things. We also know of people who had A grades to spare who have ended up doing nothing that exciting. The difference between them tends to come down to self-belief, drive, tenacity and, admittedly, a little bit of luck. There is a big overlap between those things and the employability skills that firms are looking for and that we hear about so much these days. It is claimed that they are less prevalent now than they used to be—although it is difficult to say whether there was ever a golden age for such things—but in the new world economy they are more important than ever. However, our education system now and ever since I was born has been all but exclusively focused on young people’s exam results.
The all-party group on social mobility’s character and resilience manifesto was written by a think-tank, along with Baroness Tyler of Enfield. We had a simple definition of character and resilience: people need to believe they can achieve; understand the relationship between effort and sometimes distant reward; stick with the task at hand; and bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks. That is easier said than done, but if people can master those things they will have a very good shout in doing as well as they can in life. The key question is: are those things inherent, or can they be taught? As has been said, the evidence tends to suggest—although we have to be careful about being dogmatic about this—that they can at least be developed and enhanced through life. That can be done through all sorts of things, including volunteering and Saturday jobs, which have been in massive decline, and the National Citizen Service, competitive team sport and the scouts, the guides and the cadets.
The question for public policy is how to institute those character development strands into the social mobility strategy. The process has to start early, so thinking about character should be part of how we think about school readiness. Schools have a key role to play. When our all-party group asked the headmaster of one of Britain’s leading public schools what it was about his school that meant it apparently did so well on character, the first thing he said was, “We teach boys how to fail—the ability for things to go wrong—and then how to bounce back.” I think there are lessons to be learned from that, not only by individual schools but by the system as a whole.
Perhaps the most obvious thing of all is extra-curricular activities. It seems that the gap in extra-curricular activity between better-off and worse-off kids is more about take-up than availability: a lot of programmes are made available, but they are not used that much. I would like to see more emphasis on extra-curricular activities not necessarily happening in schools, but being led, driven and encouraged by schools. That could be a legitimate use of pupil premium money, given how important we know such activities are for how young people get on in life, and I would like Ofsted to pay even more attention to the issue in future. The Government are looking at this in earnest and I hope it will end up becoming a key part of the social mobility strategy.
I want to talk about some of things that we do not know. In many public policy areas, we think that if we know the facts we need only to have a bit of a barney to find solutions or ways forward. On social mobility, we still do not know many of the facts and the situation is still evolving.
We are blessed with one example of a place in Britain that has gone from zero to hero in educational attainment, and probably in wider social mobility measures as well, which is London, particularly inner London. When we look at the data, it is striking to see how far inner London in particular has moved. Today, disadvantaged children growing up in London do half a grade better per GCSE than those growing up elsewhere; they appear to be twice as likely to go to university as those growing up elsewhere; and they are even more likely than that—the maths becomes quite difficult because the numbers are small—to go to a top university than disadvantaged kids growing up elsewhere.
The stock answer that rolls off everybody’s tongue when we say that is, “Oh, yes, but those children had the London Challenge.” Hon. Members should not get me wrong, because the London Challenge was good and positive, and it is difficult to argue against elements of it, but there are several reasons for believing that it was not the sole or primary cause of the change. The first reason is that the improvement predated the London Challenge: the London Challenge began in 2003, which was also the year in which GCSE results in London caught up with those elsewhere. The second reason is that the improvement was in primary schools as well as secondary schools, but at that time the London Challenge covered only secondary schools, and from the limited data we have, it appears that disadvantaged kids in London do better even in nursery, before their schooling has even begun. The third reason is that the improvement was very concentrated among poor kids. The fourth reason is that when the London Challenge was tried in Manchester and Birmingham—again, hon. Members should not get me wrong, because there was some success—the results were not replicated in nearly the same way.
We now have to cope with or come to terms with the strange situation that coming from an ethnic minority and/or having English as an additional language is a predictor of doing better at school, which challenges policy makers a great deal. Given the massive population change in London during the past 20 years, we must at least entertain the possibility not just that that situation is related to the fact that schools are now different and have got better in London, but that it has something—not entirely, but partly—to do with the population make-up of people living in London. That brings us back to questions about parenting.
I have not seen the marrying study, although I have seen several of Chris Cook’s articles in the Financial Times. There are another two reports. At one launch, the Minister for Schools rightly said, “Londoners are used to this sort of thing. You wait a long time for a report about schools, and two come at once.”
Three reports have come along at once.
Lots of different effects are taking place, and we need to understand them much better. What we can be sure of is that there is no one simple and obvious answer, because it would have been found by now. More generally, we do not know enough about the patterns of uneven opportunity in this country. We know that some big areas are worse than others, and we can identify pockets of poor schooling, sometimes in affluent wider areas, where school results are not good enough. However, we do not understand enough about our country as a whole in relation to who stands to do better than others, why that should be the case and what we can do to mitigate it.
In the United States, a recent study on equality of opportunity, led by Raj Chetty of Harvard, has helped us as never before to understand inequality of opportunity and the patterns of inequality in the United States. It found that the chances of achieving the American dream are two and a half times higher in Salt Lake City than in Charlotte, North Carolina. To put that in context, average social mobility in the UK is about halfway along the range for cities in the United States. There is every reason to believe that there will also be quite a range, perhaps for different reasons, in this country. The Chetty study has some challenging findings on the potential causes of inequality, including the de facto segregation that still exists in some American cities and the family structures in different places, as well as dealing with the more obvious issues that we might expect: income inequality, school quality and social capital.
That study was carried out by linking tax data to school records to track how people did through life and look at the differences—seeing how someone was affected if they moved to a different area, and so on. I do not know whether I am the only Member in the House today to have had the benefit of some e-mails from 38 Degrees this week on whether it is legitimate to use data from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for other purposes. I totally recognise and share the massive data security concerns about that, but I hope that the Government will look at the potential of using the data to understand this issue better so that we are able to do something about it.
Social mobility alone will not solve poverty or child poverty, but it can solve a part of those problems. It is a huge issue for both social justice and economic growth. It is self-evident that every person in our land should have equal opportunities to fulfil their intrinsic potential. It is also true that maximisation of national income requires optimal deployment of resources, including human resources. It could bring an extra £150 billion a year of national income, or a one-off 4% rise in growth, and that is an opportunity that we as a country cannot afford to miss.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on securing this important debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for it.
Throughout her time in Parliament my right hon. Friend has made an outstanding contribution on improving the life chances of young people, as I know from direct experience. I established a charity called UpRising, which has the support of the three party leaders. It works on empowering young people to get into politics and public life, promoting social mobility and supporting young people with regard to skills and employability. When I was working to establish that charity, she was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and her Department supported UpRising through the empowerment fund; the current Government have continued in that effort. Her work on the Speaker’s parliamentary placements scheme has been outstanding in providing excellent support to young people who want to find an opportunity to work in Parliament and join us here in this Chamber in the future.
My right hon. Friend spoke powerfully about the inspiration her mother provided to her in everything she has achieved. The phrase, “The world is your oyster if you work hard,” is one that I can associate with my own experiences. It echoes the message I received not only from my mother and the rest of my family but from my teachers, who had a profound effect on what I went on to do and the opportunities I had to get a great education in Tower Hamlets, where I then lived. Other Members have talked about their own direct experience of how education has provided the critical chance for them to achieve their aspirations and make a contribution.
That is the context for this debate on the importance of making sure that young people today do not do less well than their parents’ generation. We all have a duty and a responsibility to make sure that the next generation does better than the current one, as has been the case previously. All Members who have spoken have highlighted the grave position that we are now in as a society. The twin challenges of tackling child poverty and powering social mobility should demand the most urgent attention from this House, the Government, employers and wider society.
Figures that came out this week show that, on this Government’s watch, 2.6 million children are now living in absolute poverty. That means that almost one in five young people face profound threats to their childhoods, aspirations and life chances. Many Members across the political divide represent constituencies in which child poverty is a widespread reality. In my constituency, 42% of children are living in poverty. That is one of the highest levels in the country. I was a commissioner on the London Child Poverty Commission for a number of years and we highlighted the dangers of the stubbornly high level of child poverty in this city, which results from the high cost of living, including the cost of housing, and the level of worklessness.
The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) said that we must build homes and create opportunities for people to work. He is absolutely right. That is what we must do to help children in poverty not only in London, but in other parts of the country. He was particularly right about work. Parents must have the opportunity to earn a decent wage so that they can provide a decent living for their children.
What is coming into sharper focus is that more than two thirds of children in poverty are growing up in families in which someone works. Not only is early intervention, such as support for child care and Sure Start centres, critical to children’s development; it enables parents, especially mothers, to secure work and contribute to the family income so that their children do not live in poverty. Labour’s proposals to link the minimum wage to average earnings and to address insecure work are badly needed to tackle low pay and the child poverty that occurs as a consequence.
Last year’s landmark report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission condemned the Government’s failure to produce a credible strategy to tackle in-work poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group has rightly highlighted the importance of promoting second-earner employment among couples with children. It points to the Resolution Foundation’s estimate that 1 million women are missing from the Labour market. We will never meet the child poverty target without addressing that problem. That means that we must address the serious flaw in the proposals for universal credit that makes second-earner work incentives worse than under the current system. The universal credit rescue committee submitted its report to the Labour party last week. On second-earner work incentives, it said that
“Universal Credit will weaken the incentive for second earners in couples to work. One in five children in poverty now lives with a single-earner couple, and ensuring that more second earners, principally women, are able to take up employment will be critical to reducing child poverty rates.”
The last Labour Government reduced the number of children in poverty by almost 900,000. In the final years of the last Government, child poverty went down to its lowest level since the ’80s. However, there was much more to do and this Government needed to continue that trend of reducing poverty. This should always be a collective effort. What we have seen is an increase in poverty that threatens to obliterate that progress. Save the Children, the End Child Poverty campaign and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have warned that the Government will miss their own 2020 target by a staggering margin. That cannot be acceptable, whichever end of the political spectrum one is on.
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission gives us no reason to hope that the Government can turn the situation around. It says that, despite the Government’s decent intentions, their recent work on child poverty reads like a “list of policies”, rather than the coherent strategy that our children and young people need; lacks any
“clear measures to assess progress”
over the coming years; and fails to “engage with independent projections” of rising poverty. Experts are united in the belief that the strategy simply lacks any credibility. The commission goes on to say that the strategy is a “missed opportunity” to create momentum towards securing a high-mobility, low-poverty society. We desperately need decisive action to support young people in realising their aspirations and talents. I hope that the Minister will address the concerns that have been expressed by the commission and hon. Members.
That analysis underpins much of the discussion today about declining social mobility. Family background, educational attainment and later life chances remain closely bound together in the UK. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development research shows that intergenerational mobility in the UK is weaker than in most comparable nations, including France and Germany. The Government have so far unfortunately failed to close the attainment gap between those who have free school meals and those who do not.
The hon. Member for East Hampshire talked about the success of the London Challenge and I am grateful for his remarks about that. He is right to point out that some areas were already doing much of what the London Challenge did. In my constituency, head teachers led the way, along with those in Newham and other parts of the country. It is clear that the lessons learned from specific examples, such as in my borough throughout the late 1990s and beyond, were pulled together to promote collaboration, joint working, good management and leadership by head teachers and other teachers working with the wider community. That was an important way of driving up standards in London, which has experienced the most improvements in the country. It is a great shame that the Government are not speaking up for those sorts of initiatives, trying to ensure that educational standards are improved throughout the country and that lessons are learned from what has worked, whoever happened to introduce it.
The shadow Minister is being a little churlish, which is not in her nature, so I am sure she will want to correct what she has said. After all, the results for children who have free school meals have improved against a tougher level, and that is worth celebrating. One of the interesting aspects of our report was looking at the gap between free school meals children in inadequate schools and those in outstanding schools. That gap stayed roughly the same, but doubling outcomes for them is something to celebrate, regardless.
I referred to the failure to close the gap. The hon. Gentleman is right that there have been improvements, but that is not enough. It is not satisfactory. As the Education Committee’s commendable work highlights, the position of white working-class children—boys and girls—is deeply disturbing. As a society, we have failed them. Most of them are in that category of having free school meals, so the position is not good enough. The Government should take seriously the hon. Gentleman’s work, which has cross-party support, on the plight of white working-class children. We need to step up and address the challenge.
It is clear from the speeches that we all want children to do well, regardless of background. We want their talents to be maximised, not wasted, so that their abilities are recognised and they can contribute to our economy and our society.
The Government’s policy of scrapping the education maintenance allowance has had a direct impact on social mobility. I know that from the experience of several groups. More than 80% of ethnic minority children, for example, from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds, relied on that grant. Young people from parts of the country where they spend money on transport now struggle to commute to their further education colleges. Many have highlighted the challenges they face because they do not have the support that they need. Some go to their further education colleges not being able to feed themselves. In a climate of high levels of poverty and deprivation, provision such as an education maintenance allowance was a great help and its removal has contributed to taking away the ladders to progress.
I know from direct experience with young people that other changes, such as the proposal to scrap support for young people under 24, are deeply troubling. Without support and access to benefits, one young woman whom my charity supported would not have made it from a broken family and having been made homeless to what turned out to be an incredible opportunity: she got a place at Cambridge.
She would not have had that ladder of opportunity if the support system offered by the state had been removed. We must consider many welfare changes to ensure that the barriers to young people being socially mobile are not added to, and that we all work hard to remove them.
The hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) highlighted the importance of qualified teachers and the need for a royal college of teaching. I am delighted that he emphasised the importance of qualified teachers, and his party’s support for that. It is a great shame that the Government, the Secretary of State and the Conservative party do not support that provision, but I hope we can get agreement on that.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will say why his Secretary of State said that there is no need for qualified teachers, when evidence suggests that qualified teachers play a profound in role in young people’s attainment. On his point about London, I suspect he is referring to the last Labour Government. We increased the supply of teachers by introducing teaching assistants who then got qualifications. We have called for teachers and for those who are not trained to be able to work towards training, and that is what we did. Perhaps the Conservative party will address that point given that the Conservative Chair of the Education Committee has said that qualified teachers make a massive difference to young people’s potential to achieve.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady since she mentioned me. As she has made clear, qualified teachers can do a great job, but I trust heads to make that decision. Given the accountability they are subject to, the idea that heads would take on people who they do not think will improve the education of their children is false, and there are fewer non-qualified teachers than when the Labour party left office. I just throw that in—it is a bit of a distraction when such a tiny percentage of the work force do not have that particular piece of paper, which is not all that indicative of quality.
I am rather disappointed that the Chair of the Select Committee is taking such a partisan view. The point is that if a policy is introduced and a message sent that there is no need for qualified teachers or to invest in their qualifications, that is wrong. It means that the supply of qualified teachers in the future will decline, which is a huge concern. Evidence shows that qualified teachers make a massive difference, particularly when they are dealing with large class sizes, as is the case in most state-funded schools—unlike in private schools, which is often the comparison made by the Conservative party.
Let me move on to the point about professions, which I hope Government Members might agree on. Institutions, whether Parliament, the legal or financial professions, journalism, and many others, all have a major job to ensure that young people from working and lower middle-class backgrounds have the opportunity to access those professions. Those young people’s chances of being able to access those professions remain much lower than for those from upper middle-class backgrounds, and there remains a massive disparity between those who are privately educated and those who go to state schools, although progress is being made. There is a role for ensuring that private schools, which have to pass a public benefit test, make more effort to work with state schools, and share not only their physical assets and facilities, which many do, but their social capital, which they have in abundance. Such sharing could support and promote learning in both private and state schools—private schools have much to learn from the work of state schools and vice versa. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles mentioned the work on resilience and on how young people adapt and learn in the state sector. That is an important aspect of shared learning.
A number of hon. Members, including the Chair the Education Committee, referred to careers guidance in education, which is a deep concern for all hon. Members. As the Committee report points out, major challenges need to be addressed. Changes made by the Government have led to massive problems in what schools offer to young people. We need to rectify that quickly. The CBI’s verdict is that the Government’s changes mean that careers guidance in our country has been left on life support. The Chair of the Committee highlighted some of the conflicts of interest that can arise. Schools have been given a statutory duty, but they might not be in a position to provide independent advice and guidance to young people, which is important if they are to keep their options open and have the broadest awareness of what is on offer, whether that is university or training and apprenticeship opportunities, and of the institutions they will go on to.
Furthermore, the removal of the entitlement to work experience means that many working-class parents—the majority—are struggling to find placements for their children, whereas those from professional backgrounds are better placed to use their networks to provide work experience opportunities for their children. We need to ensure that schools and other educational establishments can work together to provide work experience opportunities, mentors and a ladder for recognising, and learning about, professions that are not accessible to many young people in our country because of their social class background. Enabling that requires Government action. The careers co-ordinator role and careers support are critical in helping to orchestrate and provide such help and support for young people. Families are being left to their own devices, which is creating more disparities, not only in work experience—horizons are either opened or left closed for people from working-class backgrounds—but in careers information and guidance, which are limited in some places and virtually non-existent in others.
There are many great examples of great work—all hon. Members know of it in our constituencies—but we need to be concerned about those who do not have access to independent guidance and advice. I hope the Minister takes on board the concerns raised by hon. Members of all parties. The lack of independent guidance and advice blocks young people from realising their aspirations, whatever their background.
Youth unemployment remains incredibly high—850,000 young people are still unemployed. We need to ensure that, in future, young people who are unemployed get the support they need. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), highlighted the importance of ensuring that the 16-hour rule is flexed so that young people can get the appropriate training and skills to get into the labour market. That is critical.
I hope the Government reconsider the Opposition’s proposal for a youth jobs guarantee. The Labour Government introduced the future jobs fund, which showed dramatic and positive results. The current Government’s Work programme has had limited success. In constituencies such as mine, only 14% of those on the Work programme have gone into a job, and the numbers nationally are much worse. I hope the Minister and his Government will be pragmatic and look at what works, learn from it and reform proposals to ensure that young people’s life chances are not further worsened.
I will make some more progress and then I will consider giving way.
Apprenticeships are critical. The number of apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds has actually gone down over the course of this Parliament. Although the number is beginning to go up for other groups, we want more apprenticeships for young people. I hope the Minister will consider why the figure is so low for 16 to 18-year-olds and what his Government will do to improve it.
The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) highlighted the challenges faced by those who do not go to university and are being left behind. I know he would not want to use the term coined by the leader of my party, “the forgotten 50%”, but whatever we call that group, this is a serious issue. Successive Governments have overlooked the need to ensure that young people have a world-class vocational, educational and training pathway into work or higher education, if they choose to go into higher education later on. We must all take action to ensure they have the opportunity to gain meaningful work and the skills they desperately need to avoid long-term unemployment, despair and hopelessness. It is important, particularly in times of economic downturn, that we do not lose out on their potential to make a contribution to our economy.
Child poverty and social mobility are of paramount importance. We have, as was evident from the reaction of Government Members to some of my comments, massive disagreements on how we get there, but we all want to get to the same destination: making sure that young people, whatever their background, can reach their full potential. We want to ensure that the barriers that can be removed, such as class, social connections and lack of opportunities, are removed whoever is in government.
We cannot have a situation in which so many children are in poverty and more are likely to be in the future. We need a step change to ensure that we eliminate poverty, not just halve it. If we want to reduce global child poverty, we need to practise what we preach here at home. I hope we can all agree that that is a task we must all work towards. We must ensure that we agree to do what we can to make sure that young people have the best possible opportunities. We need leadership, resources and investment in young people’s life chances to tackle those inequalities and barriers.
Did the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) want to intervene? I note that he has been restless.
I would just like to take the hon. Lady back to her comments on youth unemployment. From what she said we would not know that youth unemployment is falling rapidly. She did not state how the policies she is putting forward would make that fall more rapid than it is at the moment. What is the solution to making it fall even more rapidly than it is falling at the moment?
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the evidence, he will find that the future jobs fund got young people back to work very quickly. His party rapidly scrapped it without replacing it, and the massive delay that followed meant that people all over the country, including people in my constituency, had no programme at all. His party then introduced the Work programme, which was and continues to be a disgrace. It is not getting people back to work. Last year, only 3% of my constituents were getting jobs. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the facts, he will find that the future jobs fund was a success and the current programme is still struggling. He ought to stop being so obsessed with something that is not working, and start looking at policies that work and encouraging his Ministers to implement them.
Despite the fall in youth unemployment, 870,000 young people are still unemployed. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Reading East denying that? I think it is a scandal if he is in denial about it. Those people are desperate for work and desperate for opportunities. He needs to recognise that instead of living in denial, because otherwise people will think—quite rightly—that he and his party are completely out of touch.
Let me end by returning to the subject raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles, whose work in this field has been phenomenal. She has stood up for young people, and not only in relation to this agenda. She mentioned her work in supporting troubled families, her work on the respect agenda, and her work in supporting families and education, promoting empowerment, and tackling powerlessness and exclusion during her career here in Parliament. I am sad that she is leaving Parliament, and I know that Members in all parts of the House will be sad as well. However, we look forward to working with her in fighting for young people, tackling child poverty, and promoting social mobility. We will all be there, whatever our political leanings, to support the causes for which she will continue to fight, including the very important causes that we have discussed today.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to debate this very important and wide-ranging subject. I also thank the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and the Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), for sponsoring the debate and for opening it in such a powerful way. Their extensive speeches covered a great many of the major policy areas relating to social mobility.
I especially enjoyed the right hon. Lady’s speech. I enjoyed her challenges on some of the issues about which she thinks the Government should be doing more. I was interested to hear about her own family background, and her mother’s efforts to take all the opportunities that life presented. I congratulate her particularly on her success, and the success of her constituent, in helping to change some of what sounded like the rather backward-looking arrangements for the admission of postgraduates to Oxford university. I imagine that it is even more difficult to change the arrangements for admissions to Oxford university than it can sometimes be to change Government policy, so I think that that was something of a victory for her and her constituent.
The Government are committed to the principle that where people start in life should not determine where they end up, and that forms the basis of a huge amount of work that we are doing on both economic and social policy, which we have set out in the recent child poverty strategy and the social mobility strategy. It was good to hear not only the two opening speeches, but the speeches made by other Members including the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright), the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and, of course, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). They made powerful speeches which covered different aspects of the debate, and which signalled that in all parties, whatever their philosophy and whatever their ideology, there is a strong commitment to changing society in this regard, and ensuring that there is genuine opportunity for everyone regardless of background. That national consensus comes across clearly in the foreword to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report from the autumn of 2013, where Alan Milburn and his fellow commissioners said:
“It is part of Britain’s DNA that everyone should have a fair chance in life. Yet too often demography is destiny in our country. Being born poor often leads to a lifetime of poverty. Poor schools ease people into poor jobs. Disadvantage and advantage cascade down the generations.”
That is the challenge that we all face. The last Government faced it and we face it in this Parliament.
It is our ambition to build not only a stronger economy out of the rubble of the crash of 2008 but a fairer society, even in these challenging times. We are not only getting on with that job but making progress, as we have set out in our strategy report and as is highlighted in parts of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report. The economy is now escaping from the worst recession in generations. We have already helped record numbers of people into work and put in place far-reaching measures to improve the educational attainment of the poorest people in society.
The right hon. Lady praised Alan Milburn and all members of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission for their work, commitment and dedication to that shared cause. I join her in thanking Alan Milburn and the commissioners for their work. She was also kind enough to praise the Government for their bravery, I think she said, in taking the novel step of setting up an independent watchdog and asking a leading former Cabinet Minister from the Labour party to chair it and to be our critical friend on those issues. That demonstrates how serious the coalition Government are about that policy agenda. We decided to take a risk in setting up a body that we fully expected would be not only a friend but a critical friend and would challenge us on our ambitions to address social injustice and create a society of real opportunity for every individual.
The Government’s child poverty strategy sets out that our approach is rigorous and evidence-based. We are focusing on sustainable solutions that will work in the long term and make our society fairer. I acknowledge that the last Government also had a strong commitment in that area. It did some important work, not least in schools policy. In the debate, we have talked about the success of London schools in the last 15 or so years. I pay tribute to former Education Secretaries and individuals such as Lord Adonis who played a large part in some of those education reforms.
It is also true that, in their strategy in this area, the last Government became very dependent on public expenditure through the benefits and tax credits system. By the end of the last Parliament, it became clear to most commentators and people in the House that the strategy of relying on ever more means-tested benefits was not sustainable in the long term, particularly in an environment where the public finances were deeply in deficit.
Therefore, we are now focusing on tackling the causes of inequality and social injustice. That is why we are putting a particular focus on some of the areas that right hon. and hon. Members have raised today: on investing in the early years, on improving the quality of our schools system, and on ensuring that people get more opportunities in work and make progress in work, rather than simply being in work on low pay. I would like to set out some of the Government’s plans in those areas and to try to respond to some of the points that right hon. and hon. Members have made.
The right hon. Lady placed a heavy emphasis on the importance of tackling disadvantage in the early years, as did a number of other Members, rightly. The Government fully share the view that, in order to address disadvantage and inequality of opportunity, we have to be able to act early on. Far too many young people start off way behind as they join our schools system. Schools then struggle to try to make good the disadvantage that has already been embedded in the early years. We have to do more in those crucial early years to prevent these gaps from opening up, so across the early years we are helping disadvantaged children to gain access to high-quality education and we are providing more help to parents who want to get back to work. Our new entitlement for the parents of the most disadvantaged 40% of two-year-olds will mean that about 260,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds will be entitled to get a Government-funded early education place from September.
Earlier this year, we also announced that from 2015-16 we will extend the pupil premium, which is having a profoundly important impact in schools, into the early years, so that we ensure that three-year-olds and four-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds can get the best start in life. That is extra money to raise the quality of teaching and pay for more qualified teaching staff, particularly in settings with a large number of disadvantaged youngsters. We have announced the consultation on that and the level of the early years pupil premium for 2015-16, and I very much hope that the party or parties in government after the next election will continue to be committed to the early-years pupil premium and to the schools pupil premium. I hope we will significantly increase the early-years pupil premium so that it is at least as great financially—if anything, I hope it is more—as the pupil premium for primary schools, on a full-time equivalent basis. We know that investment in these areas makes the biggest impact when we invest early, which is why we decided in 2014-15 to put almost all the increase in the pupil premium into the primary setting rather than into secondary education. We are also doing other good work.
The pupil premium is based on free school meal eligibility, but we still do not know which recipients of universal credit will be entitled to free school meals for their children. We have been waiting for this decision for about three years, and I think the delay is because of a disagreement—or an inability to reach agreement—between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. Is the Minister able to tell us when that very important policy decision will be made?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that there is no disagreement in government. This is a very important decision to get right, for the reasons he explains, and we have no intention of undermining support for disadvantaged youngsters through the decisions we take. We have to make sure that we use the new mechanisms that will be available, including through universal credit, to target money effectively. We will be taking decisions shortly—Ministers often say that—on this matter, but in the meantime it is perfectly reasonable for him to ask questions about it, because it is important for us to get it right.
We are also taking other action to support families in the early years: for working families on universal credit, we are further increasing support for child care costs to 85%, as Alan Milburn’s commission urged us to do, making sure that for these families work will always pay; we are introducing tax-free child care; and the Deputy Prime Minister recently announced the commencement of flexible parental leave, so that all parents can get the support they need to go back to work. As the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has consistently argued, the early years are the most important years in young people’s lives. That is why we are investing so heavily to make sure that all our children get the very best start they can and why we are giving a priority in public expenditure terms to this area, even in these times of austerity.
Understandably, education in our schools system has been a major area debated today, and it is one of the Government’s big priorities. I am very proud, as a member of the coalition Government, that even in these times of austerity, when we are trying to deal with the massive deficit we inherited, that we have made the commitment to fund a pupil premium for schools. As hon. Members have said, we are focused not only on raising attainment for all school pupils, but on closing the unacceptable attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils, and we are making progress. Under this Government, poor children are doing better than ever at school. The proportion of children on free school meals and the pupil premium who are getting five good GCSEs has increased, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South said, from 31% when the coalition came to power to 38% now. That is a very significant increase over a relatively short period, and comes at a time when we are ensuring that there is no grade inflation in the system, which means that these improvements in recorded results are real improvements.
We are also making big improvements in narrowing the gap at key stages 2 and 4. At key stage 2, the acceleration in narrowing the gap seems to have been present since the pupil premium came in, and we need to ensure that that acceleration is sustained in future years and that it is present in both key stages 2 and 4.
As hon. Members have said, a massive amount more needs to be done in this area. It is still the case that, despite the progress, six in 10 children on free school meals fail to secure five C grades at GCSE, including English and maths. I hope that all of us across the House agree that that is entirely unacceptable in an advanced country such as Britain. As the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out so powerfully, we can see that that is unacceptable when we look at the levels of attainment and the reduction in the gap in some of the best schools where they have large numbers of disadvantaged young people. In those schools, including in areas such as inner London, the teachers and the head teachers are proving that there is nothing inevitable about this level of underperformance. There are parts of the country today where almost 80% of young people who are considered disadvantaged are failing to get those five Cs, and that is not something that any of us can accept.
We are continuing to put our money where our mouth is —through the pupil premium. Since 2011, we have invested almost £4 billion to help schools directly to address educational disadvantage. This year, the pupil premium will increase to £2.5 billion a year—the full amount that we promised in the coalition agreement. That means that children who are poor and who receive the pupil premium throughout their school career will now receive—or their schools will receive—an additional £14,000 to boost their attainment, which is a significant amount of money. Schools will be able to make powerful use of that money, and they will be informed by the mechanisms to improve education that the Education Endowment Foundation has flagged up as things that work.
I have been to schools in very disadvantaged neighbourhoods around the country, and recognise that this boost to the budget is quite transformational. With my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), I visited a school in his constituency with very high levels of deprivation—80% or 90% of young people were entitled to the pupil premium. It is a community that never really recovered from the de-industrialisation of the 1980s and a community where aspirations have been very low. This additional money is giving that school the opportunity to change the life chances of those young people.
Of course we have to ensure that, even though we give discretion to schools to spend this money in the way they think best, there is accountability for it. The right thing to do in the school system is to have more freedom and autonomy, but those things have to come with accountability. The accountability mechanism that we have chosen is through Ofsted. When Ofsted goes into a school, it will look to see whether the disadvantaged pupils are making good progress and it will see whether the gap is closing. If those things are happening, it will not have to ask lots of questions and it will not be wasting the time of school leaders and teachers by creating a bureaucracy around this. Where there is not progress and where the gaps are not closing, it will challenge schools. Schools that thought they might be outstanding will discover that they are not so graded because they are failing in this area. Schools that are weaker will be highlighted. Head teachers today know that this is now an important area for their school’s performance, and Ofsted will recommend pupil premium reviews by outstanding system leaders of schools that are not using this money sensibly.
Later this month, Ofsted will report on its view of how the pupil premium is being used in schools. Although I would be the first to accept that not every school is using every penny perfectly, I believe that the evidence will show that the school system increasingly does understand what this money is for and is using it and targeting it in the right way.
Another important thing that we have done is to change the accountability systems for both primary and secondary schools and in 16-to-19 provision. For too long in primary education we have set the bar too low for schools. At one stage, we accepted that 40% of young people could fail to reach the level of attainment to which we were aspiring and we now know that even that level was too modest and was, for those people who were just achieving it, a passport to failure later in life and in their educational career. We are raising the bar and we are expecting more young people to get over it.
As the Chairman of the Select Committee pointed out, by focusing more on progress and not on the C-D borderline, we are giving a real incentive to schools to value the progress made by every pupil—the B-grade students going to A, the A-grade students going to A* and, critically, the F-grade students going to E, the E-grade students going to D and the D-grade students going to C. One of the disappointments under the previous Government, in spite of the progress made in some areas of education, was that a lot of the progress was across the C-D borderline on which schools had an incentive to focus. A lot of the most disadvantaged youngsters who were not on that borderline saw almost no improvement in performance under the previous Government. They and many of the most disadvantaged communities saw precious little improvement during the last Parliament and I hope that our accountability reforms will change that.
I am optimistic. We had the pupil premium awards recently and saw some splendid best practice across the country. Schools are doing the right things, with high expectations and good teaching. That includes schools such as Mossbourne academy. The recent destinations data show that a large number of young people from those schools are going to first-class jobs and first-class educational settings, and are going on to places such as Oxford and Cambridge. More people from that school did that than was the case from some entire local authority areas, as, disgracefully, there are still some parts of the country in which no pupil at all goes on to our best universities.
The Minister will know that thanks in part to the flexibilities that this Government have introduced, there is an increasing correlation between the amount of money that schools get and their efficacy in a way that there was not in the past, which is probably a good thing. That shows the need for a new national funding formula that ensures equitable distribution of funds across the country. We do not have that now. London is doing well, and we are all delighted about that, but it is also the best-funded part of the country.
I entirely agree. Money is of course not always the answer—if it is spent badly, for instance—but it is really important. If we did not think that money was important we would not have the pupil premium, which is about money, accountability and best practice. We must make sure that we have a fairer national funding formula. We are making the biggest step for 10 or 20 years towards fairer school funding through the minimum funding levels we are introducing, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to say more about the additional funding we can give to underfunded parts of the country when our consultation concludes.
As well as addressing attainment in education for disadvantaged groups, we need to help them to secure the right jobs so that they can get on in life. Apprenticeships are at the heart of our drive to equip people of all ages with the skills employers need to grow and compete, and we are very proud that more than 1.6 million new apprenticeships have been started in this Parliament at more than 200,000 workplaces. More than 860,000 people undertook an apprenticeship in the past academic year, which is the highest recorded figure in modern history. Our new programme of traineeships will help young people to develop the skills and attributes they need to secure apprenticeships and other sustainable jobs.
We are also pleased that the work we are doing with young people means that the number not in education, employment or training has been falling. We will continue to do more to help young people from 16 to 18 and to ensure that, as a number of hon. Members have said, we have proper careers advice and guidance, and proper incentives for educational establishments to focus on destinations.
We are also helping young people in work, helping parents to find jobs and helping to ensure that take-home pay after tax increases. We are incentivising employers to take on more young people by abolishing employer national insurance contributions for most employees under 21 from April of next year. We are raising the national minimum wage to £6.50 per hour, which represents the biggest cash increase since 2008 and will increase the pay of more than 1 million people. We are cutting income tax for those on the minimum wage by almost two thirds and we have increased the personal allowance five times, from £6,475 when the coalition came to power to £10,500 in 2015-16, which is a massive support to many people on low pay in employment—people who are also, incidentally, going to benefit from the free school meals for infant-age pupils from this September, and that will also be extended for the first time to disadvantaged young people in college settings who previously, for no rational reason, were excluded from the entitlement that there was to free school meals for those in schools. I am pleased that this Government have resolved that very long-running injustice.
We are also working with business to ensure that it helps people to progress, earn more and have responsible terms and conditions. We are addressing exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts and are committed to the social mobility business compact. I am proud that, as a consequence of the work the Government have done and of the recovery of the economy, employment has increased by nearly 1.7 million. In just the past year unemployment is down by almost 350,000, and we have one of the highest employment rates in the history of our country.
Because we know that work is the best route out of poverty, our welfare reforms will incentivise even more people into work, and ensure that work always pays and that work pays more than benefits. We provide intensive, personalised support for parents who have been out of work for 12 months or more through the Work programme. To date, around 300,000 people on the Work programme have found lasting work. We are also supporting families with multiple disadvantages to get back to work through the troubled families programme, in order to help young people.
We cannot highlight the importance of social mobility and of tackling child poverty enough. They are central to the Government’s mission and to what the coalition hopes to achieve over our period of five years in government. Quite simply, no child should become a poor adult for the simple reason that their parents were poor.
I have set out the steps we are taking in early-years education and 16-to-19 education, and in trying to improve employment outcomes, but we know there is more to do. We have listened carefully to the proposals made by hon. Members and we are listening carefully to what comes out of Alan Milburn’s reports and the work of his commissioners. We will seek to build on the success so far, to make sure we break this unacceptable link between social backgrounds and success in life.
I record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate. I hope it will agree with me that the time was extremely well spent.
We heard a number of very high quality, well-informed, accurate and passionate speeches from Members on both sides of the House. I want to thank in particular the chair of the all-party group on social mobility, the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who again gave us a formidable tour de force of his data analysis. I like to think my politics are evidence-based. Occasionally he does manage to convince me, but occasionally my emotions also play a part in my political ideology, but I have great respect for the work he does in this area.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) for her contribution, and I would like to say to her that I hope electoral circumstances may result in her having the chance to achieve her undoubted potential to be a very successful Minister in future.
I thank the Minister for his response, his personal commitment and his passion for this area. He has acknowledged that a lot has been done and there is a lot more to do. That is a familiar phrase that we all should subscribe to.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), too. I had no idea he was a university admissions tutor. It is amazing how much information we discover about each other in these debates.
I thank the Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), for his support in going to the Backbench Business Committee to request this cross-party debate.
My final thanks are to the commission on social mobility, and to a particular member of it. I would not normally single out a member of that commission, but David Johnston, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, is a key member of it. For many years he has not just been talking about the problem; he has been running the Social Mobility Foundation. He and that organisation have helped thousands of young people become doctors, lawyers and engineers or get jobs in the finance professions. Those young people would never have got to university without the residential programmes, one-to-one mentoring and face-to-face careers guidance—all the things that we talked about today. My thanks go to David Johnston because he stuck at it.
That is the message for us on this agenda. It will still be here when we come and go. We have to stick at it and work together, as we can. In that way we will continue to make progress to ensure that everybody in this country has the chance to achieve what they are capable of and to do well. It is an incredibly optimistic agenda and one that I am delighted to be part of.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered social mobility and the child poverty strategy.