We have made significant and ambitious reforms to the education system since 2010. We have expanded childcare provision, raised school standards, transformed apprenticeships and increased university access. We will continue to drive social mobility through the whole education system and beyond into careers. Equality of opportunity is essential to make our country one that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.
In light of the excellent news that we have seen the best improvement in reading standards in our schools for 15 years, not least due to the excellent work of the Minister for School Standards, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that no single measure can boost social mobility more than this kind of dramatic improvement in education standards?
Absolutely, I do. In fact, it was put forward in the teeth of opposition from many Opposition Members. Last week’s international reading results showed not only that reading in England has improved for pupils from all backgrounds, but crucially that low-performing pupils are gaining the most rapidly. Just 58% of pupils reached expected reading standards in the first national phonic screening check in 2012. That figure is now 81%. There has been no welcome from the Opposition for this progress.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the recent Social Mobility Commission report showed that social mobility is an issue not just for inner cities but for our shire counties, including Worcestershire? Is that not further justification for a fairer funding formula to redress some of the relative underfunding of so many of our rural schools?
My hon. Friend is right. This was an important funding reform to ensure that all children are invested in properly. On opportunity areas, we are focusing our effort on areas of the country with the greatest challenges and the fewest opportunities. We have invested £72 million in opportunity areas, some in rural areas. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to flag up the fact that talent is spread evenly, but opportunity is not. We are determined to change that.
One Member of the House is so keen to demonstrate her commitment to equality that she is wearing what I will call a rainbow pullover, with the rainbow symbol of equality. I am referring to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), to whose contribution we look forward with eager anticipation.
Sixth form colleges are well recognised for their role in delivering social mobility, yet that is now at risk with an underfunding of £1,200 per student, compared with 11 to 16 funding. Will the Secretary of State act to address this before it is too late?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are putting more money into making sure that post-16 education is consistently gold standard, regardless of whether young people follow academic or technical education routes. I am sure he will have welcomed the announcement in the Budget a couple of weeks ago, of extra premiums for maths students.
Since the Secretary of State was the only member of the Cabinet to get a pass mark from the Social Mobility Commission, will she now cement her reputation by intervening to stop the catastrophic decline in apprenticeship starts?
I will set out a social mobility action plan later this week. On the right hon. Gentleman’s claims about apprenticeships, starts remain on track to reach 3 million by 2020. There have already been 1.1 million since May 2015. Rather than talking them down, it would be better if he talked our education system up.
I congratulate the Minister for School Standards on the incredible work done on young children’s reading. On social justice, will my right hon. Friend consider providing 30 hours of free childcare for foster children, in line with those of working parents, by dropping the eligibility earnings cap for free childcare to £65,000 from the existing £100,000 mark?
The 30 hours free childcare policy has been incredibly popular with parents. Nine out of 10 say they very much like it and welcome it. We are actively looking at the issue my hon. Friend mentions in relation to foster children.
As chair of the all-party group on social mobility, I am very concerned to read the Social Mobility Commission’s report and the subsequent comments from the outgoing chair. Will the Secretary of State, or one of her ministerial team, agree to meet the all-party group to discuss where we go from here?
I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to welcome the plan I will set out later this week. I think the time has come for us all to move on from talking about the problem, which we have done a lot for many, many years, to deciding that we have it within us to work together up and down the country to now tackle it.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). Last week the Minister for Children and Families used the 30 hours of free childcare as an example of the Government’s commitment to social mobility. He knows that foster children are some of the most vulnerable, often starting school having already fallen behind their peers, and that many would benefit from access to high-quality early years education. Why have they been excluded from the 30-hours offer, and will the Secretary of State tell us when this discrimination will end?
I am pleased that the hon. Lady implicitly recognises that the 30-hours policy is a good thing, which, ideally, would be extended to more children. As I just said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), we will be looking at that.