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Social Mobility

Volume 651: debated on Monday 17 December 2018

Social mobility is one of our top priorities, and we have seen the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils narrow at all levels, from pre-school to university entrance.

My Mid Worcestershire constituency is one of many rural constituencies that received a disappointingly low ranking in the latest social mobility index. The fairer funding formula will help, but what else will the Department do to close the gap in social mobility between rural and urban areas?

My hon. Friend is right to identify the issue in rural areas. It is encouraging that the number of good or outstanding schools in his constituency is up from 37 to 41 since 2010, but he is correct that rural areas can face distinct barriers. Through the opportunity areas programme, among other things, we will see what else we can learn to assist social mobility in rural areas.

Recent Policy Exchange research shows that poor behaviour is holding back learning and driving teachers out of the profession. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we drive out that poor behaviour, we can give every child a chance to climb the ladder?

Yes, indeed. Classrooms must be safe, calm and stimulating places for both children and teachers. The Policy Exchange report highlights what the best-performing schools do. We recently pledged £10 million to help share best practice in behaviour management, which we know is so important to teachers.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the Institute for Fiscal Studies report of 31 October, which shows that since 2010, our reforms have meant more funding going to pupils from poorer backgrounds? If so, will he join me in welcoming that report?

I welcome the IFS report. We want a country with maximum opportunity for everybody, regardless of their background. The IFS report identifies how reforms since 2010 have increased funding in favour of pupils from poorer backgrounds. That is part of starting to redress the balance and ensure that there are no limits on any child’s potential.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the best ways to give children a good start in life is for them to be brought up in a stable and loving home? What is the Department doing to strengthen family relationships in this country?

I agree with my hon. Friend that strong families can help social mobility and so much else. Our reform programme, “Putting children first”, aims to ensure that vulnerable children and families receive high-quality support as soon as need is identified.

As today’s shocking research from the National Education Union shows, one simple step that could help the most disadvantaged children is providing them with a healthy meal. It is more than two years since the Government committed to a healthy schools rating system. When will they act?

I am glad that the hon. Lady mentions the issue of providing meals for children at school. We have done a great deal on breakfast, and we have also extended eligibility for free school meals on three different occasions—in a way the Labour party never did when it was in government—through universal infant free school meals, free meals in further education colleges and, most recently, the roll-out of universal credit.

In 2015, I set up the Liverpool to Oxbridge collaborative, to encourage more students from schools in my constituency to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the 19 students who have had interviews this month at either Oxford or Cambridge and have been part of that scheme? Will his Department work with me to encourage other areas of the country, particularly those with high levels of deprivation and poverty, to adopt similar schemes?

I am delighted to do so on both counts. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his work in this area. Encouraging young people to aim higher—whether that is to Oxford, Cambridge or other universities, or into professions—is very worthwhile, and I certainly join him in what he says.

25. The further education sector—famously an engine of social mobility—is now under threat from the insolvency regime that comes in next year. Karen Redhead has turned Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College around, but she would like assurances that the support mechanisms that allowed that will continue next year, so that such colleges do not just disappear down the plughole when the new rules kick in. (908233)

The framework that the hon. Lady mentions is, among other things, there to protect students studying at colleges. FE colleges have a central role to play in our system, particularly as we develop the apprenticeships programme and bring in T-levels.

The same NEU report shows that more children will be going hungry this winter than ever before, in the experience of most teachers. Is that helping or hindering social mobility?

I am pleased to be able to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we have record levels of employment, which have helped to contribute to record levels of household income. We have brought in the national living wage and brought in tax cuts for millions of people—all to help to support working families’ household budgets.

Given that many apprentices are from disadvantaged backgrounds, will my right hon. Friend make sure that the apprenticeship levy is fit for purpose? A lot of employers are rebadging and retraining senior employees, and denying new apprentices the chance to do apprenticeships. Will he confirm that there is a £500 million overspend on the apprenticeship levy budget?

I can confirm to my right hon. Friend that it is of course very important that we continue to monitor the way in which the apprenticeship levy works. We have committed to having a review, and we will work with businesses on how it works after 2020 to make sure that young people, but also older people or people who are further into their careers, can benefit from this programme.

According to UCAS figures, the number of young Scots from deprived backgrounds gaining a place at university is at an all-time high—firm proof that the Scottish Government’s policy of free tuition is working. Rather than become involved in creative accounting with student loans, will the Secretary of State now follow Scotland’s lead in improving social mobility, and scrap tuition fees?

The picture that the hon. Lady paints of the higher education sector in Scotland—it of course features many very high quality higher education institutions—is not the same one on admissions, I have to say, that I hear from everybody. I am pleased to be able to confirm that in England we have a record number and proportion of young people going on to university.

The Social Mobility Commission’s recent survey revealed a deep unease at the gap between the rich and poor, with the public believing that the Government, employers and schools are not doing enough. The Secretary of State’s response to this urgent problem is to make £2 million available for more research, but there is still no concrete plan of action. Can he tell us exactly how much of the £2 million will be spent on the most important time for social mobility—the early years—and will it investigate the impact on the poorest children being locked out of 30 hours of free childcare?

The concern that the hon. Lady mentions is a concern shared by me—I want to go further and faster on social mobility—but I am not quite sure where she gets the idea that the social mobility strategy consists of the research budget of the Social Mobility Commission. Social mobility is at the heart of everything that we do, and we see it in the narrowing of the attainment gap in nursery school, in primary school, in secondary school, in the attainment of level 2 maths and English by age 19 and in university admissions.