[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered raising aspiration in secondary education.
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Sharma. I am not sure whether anything else is happening in the House today that means that Members might be otherwise engaged, but I am very pleased to have the opportunity to have this debate and to ask the Minister some questions about how the Government are addressing the issue of aspiration.
Aspiration is important to me. In my maiden speech on 24 June 2010, I told the House about a constituent whose only aspiration in life was for her child to receive the tenancy of her socially rented property. On the other side of my constituency, parents told me about their children—how they were going to go to university, how they would certainly buy their own home in the local area and how they hoped to get married as well. That really illustrated to me the disparity in aspiration between different parts of my constituency and, I believe, across the country. I repeat today what I said in my maiden speech nine years ago: we live in one of the most prosperous cities in the western world, but there remain yawning chasms between the aspirations of some of the people I and other MPs represent and the aspirations of others. However, for some people, including Members of this place, aspiration is not that important—I will not take the number of Members here as a reflection of that, although I have to say to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), that I will take any interventions at any time he wishes to intervene on me.
Aspiration is not important to everyone because some people are of the view that people are either born with a spirit of aspiration or have had it bought on their behalf. That view fosters an assumption that some people are born into this world with a natural capacity to lead, while everybody else does not have that capacity, and that nothing can therefore be done to change the situation.
I certainly do not agree with that view, but we have only to consider our recent record on Prime Ministers to see the strength of it. Only three of the last 11 British Prime Ministers attended state secondary schools. In total, 28 Prime Ministers have been educated at Oxford University and 14 at Cambridge, and nine Prime Ministers were educated at Eton and Christ Church. John Major was the last Prime Minister not to have attended a university; overall, only nine British Prime Ministers did not graduate from university after leaving secondary education. I present those figures not as an attack on private education—I believe strongly in private education and anyone’s right to attend a private institution—but as an illustration that aspiration is imbued in some people.
People may know that tonight there is the premiere of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s biographical film “Farming”. It tells the story of how Adewale, who is Nigerian, was “farmed out” as a boy by his parents to a white British family in Dagenham, in the hope that he would have a better future than he might otherwise have had. When I heard that this morning on the radio, it illustrated to me that aspiration is affected by not only class and financial attainment but racial and nationality backgrounds.
However, I would go further. When I conducted my PhD research, I attempted to discover whether UK legislation was implemented consistently across different rural areas and, if not, how that affected social exclusion and, particularly, tackling the problem. The first criterion was objective, as the law is the law, but the issue of social exclusion is subjective in the eyes of decision makers. On many occasions, I was told things such as, “We don’t do things like that here”, “That is not something that would be part of our local economy” and, “Access to higher education, certain public services, housing or financial attainment is difficult to achieve in places like this.”
Those views are borne out by the Department for Education’s own research. In its report “School and College-level Strategies to Raise Aspirations of High-achieving Disadvantaged Pupils to Pursue Higher Education”, which was published more than five years ago in January 2014, the DFE said:
“Prioritisation of aspiration-raising varies by geographical location, with London schools making this a particular priority…the difference appears to relate to the relatively high proportion of disadvantaged students in London schools and colleges as well as their close proximity to a large number of HEIs”—
higher education institutions—
“including selective or leading universities”.
I am listening with great interest to what the hon. Gentleman is saying; he has spoken previously in the House on these issues and commanded my attention. Does he believe, as I do, that London is, of course, a great place, but it also has many cold spots as well as hot ones, and that is also true of coastal and rural areas and schools? As a Blackpool MP, one of the problems I have found over the years is that the overall statistics for a constituency might look great, but the cold spots, which are often difficult to address in policy terms, are also substantial.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I will take this opportunity to say that my PhD—I am sure he has not read it—was about rural areas and coastal communities, which are very similar in their ability not only to attract inward investment but to provide the kind of public services that many people want. I know well not only the coastline of his own constituency, but that further up the coast, around Cumbria, where I have also lived. There are some coastal communities in that part of the world—I look towards my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) as I say this—in places such as Flimby, where it is difficult to obtain access to not only employment but higher and indeed secondary education; in those kinds of places, gaining access is not as easy as it is in parts of London. I attribute that to issues such as the difficulty of attending schools or further education colleges because of their geographical location.
When I was preparing for this debate, George and Hilary in my office asked me what I meant by “aspiration”, and it is important that I set out what I mean. By “aspiration” I mean what a child or young person hopes to achieve for themselves in the future. In my mind, that is very different from educational attainment, although for people to achieve their aspirations—in particular, for young people to achieve their aspirations for careers and education and their financial aspirations—they need good educational outcomes. Consequently, I believe that raising aspiration incentivises improved educational attainment.
In an attempt to focus on what I would like the Government to direct their attention towards, I have identified three categories of intervention that I believe foster aspiration: first, interventions that focus on children’s parents and families; secondly, interventions that focus on teaching practice; and, thirdly, out-of-school interventions or extracurricular activities, sometimes involving peers or mentors. The approaches used in these interventions are particularly diverse. Some aim to change aspirations directly by exposing children to new opportunities, while others aim to raise aspirations by developing children’s general self-esteem, motivation or self-efficacy.
I spoke in a recent education funding debate about Copthall School in my constituency, which is for girls. Around 80% of the pupils speak English as a second language, and around half are entitled to free school meals or the pupil premium. The staff and governors are making a great effort to promote aspiration among their pupils, and I am enormously encouraged by what they are achieving. One initiative they are very pleased to promote is the Gatsby career benchmarks, which they describe as
“aspirational and absolutely necessary as a vehicle for social justice.”
It is worth commenting on that programme, as it achieves three vital outcomes: first, it raises aspirations among young people and promotes access to all career paths, not just academic ones; secondly, it enables the development of the skills and the outlook that pupils need to achieve career wellbeing, including adaptability and resilience; and, finally, it underpins the Department for Education’s own guidance to schools on meeting their statutory responsibility to offer career guidance.
As I was writing this speech yesterday, I received a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, about the Gatsby programme. In concluding, she requested feedback from colleagues about any conversations they might have with schools in their constituencies in the coming weeks. However, I can give some feedback right now to the Minister here today. I have been advised by Copthall School:
“As you will see from the list at the end of this email, at Copthall we are doing a lot to meet the eight Gatsby benchmarks. However, it is a challenge to meet them all, particularly at a time when school funding is in crisis. Most schools have insufficient funding to fully implement the Gatsby benchmarks.”
Yesterday, the Minister and I had a discussion in the corridor, and he said he looked forward to this debate to hear more about my education history, following some of my revelations in previous debates. However, I have to disappoint him: I do not consider this a confessional chamber, but somewhere where I represent my constituents, so on this occasion I will not reveal more. My experience at school certainly had a dramatic impact on my views on aspiration and education, but it would be unfair of me to criticise my school, and particularly the teachers, 30 years after I left, because most people have moved on from their posts, and life was a great deal different then. It would also be wrong of me to comment on the life achievements of others—my peers—who are completely content with their personal history, although I am keen that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
One mistake that existed in the past and that continues to exist today is the tendency to separate academic and technical education routes into two simplistic alternatives. The problem is that that does not reflect the learner’s journey, which often moves between academic and technical routes at different times in their life. Permeability and flexibility between types of learning in our education system are vital if we are to enable learners to fulfil their potential and progress through both A and T-levels to higher level learning, and to achieve the goals in the Government’s industrial strategy of increasing social mobility and productivity.
As T-levels are introduced, it will be important to avoid sweeping away other qualifications, such as BTECs, which provide important and established progression routes into higher education, in the interests of creating a tidy qualification landscape. More than 100,000 students a year progress with a BTEC on its own or in combination with A-levels. UCAS data shows that, for the 2017 application cycle, only 61% of 18-year-olds held only A-level qualifications, with 11% of remaining applicants holding BTECs only, and 8% a combination of BTECs and A-levels. As a higher proportion of students opting for BTECs come from disadvantaged backgrounds, those qualifications play a critical role in supporting social mobility, providing a pathway for disadvantaged students to progress through to higher-level learning, either on an academic programme or on a higher or degree apprenticeship.
Our most disadvantaged children are often those in care and in need, something that the Secretary of State has also written to me about. Many have little aspiration and currently fall unacceptably far behind in attainment. Last year, the equivalent of one in 10 children needed a social worker at some point. The attainment of such children who require such help is greater than that of those who come from a low-income background. What hope do we give to those children? We must raise their aspiration so they expect more of themselves and believe they can succeed, and we must support schools to support children themselves.
Last year, the number of looked-after children in England reached 75,420, an increase of 4% on the previous year, and it has been increasing since 2008, when the total was 60,000. Young people in care are six times more likely to be excluded from school and more likely to be unemployed after leaving school, and 45% of them suffer from mental ill health. They are clearly being failed.
When I was deputy leader of Barnet Council, I introduced a scheme whereby the council would effectively act as a family business. If we have a family business, we often employ our own children or relatives. My initiative allowed the looked-after children, whom we were corporate parents to, to have a place in a family firm. I was very pleased that one individual not only took the opportunity to involve himself in marketing, but went on to university and provided a career for himself. Others fell by the wayside. It was not a scheme where everyone had an automatic right to a place, but there was an opportunity for them to aspire to achieve something through the services available through the local council. I was keen on the scheme because, as a child, I had a friend who lived in a children’s home, and I always understood that the opportunities available to him and other people in the care home were not the same as those available to someone like me, who lived in a loving family environment. I would like the Government to promote such initiatives. Indeed, local authorities could take the initiative to promote themselves within their communities.
To return to A-levels, high-quality careers information, advice and guidance for students and parents are essential to ensure successful implementation in the coming years. Clear signposting is needed within the curriculum to create awareness of the T-level option and ensure that young people avoid shutting down options—for example, by choosing academic subjects that will not feed into T-level study. That is particularly important, as the choices made about post-16 study will narrow further study and career options. Students at this age are still forming their identities and expectations of life, so it is vital that early information is provided.
Universities have direct experience of recruiting students from a diverse range of qualification backgrounds to access and succeed in higher education. It will be important to engage with higher education admissions professionals on T-levels to ensure that universities develop an understanding of T-levels and are able to communicate entry requirements to prospective students and level 3 providers. It will also be important to assist universities in meeting the specific needs of students progressing from those qualifications into higher education. Information around access to higher education from T-levels should also be communicated to students further down the line when they are making choices about level 3 study in schools and considering pathways and routes from T-levels.
The promotion of aspiration should occur not only in the secondary school sector. Middlesex University is located in my constituency. It has demonstrated to me on numerous occasions its considerable experience and expertise in raising aspiration and boosting social mobility. Some 52% of its current students are eligible for free school meals; 85% of the cohort falls into one of the five widening participation categories; and 50% of students are the first in their families to go to university. There seems to be a link between the university’s promotion of aspiration and its student numbers, as can be seen in its innovative Make your Mark initiative.
In 2018-19, Middlesex University engaged 6,986 school and college students and 286 parents through its outreach activity in 86 workshops in local schools. The outreach work helps young people to understand the opportunities available to them. The Make Your Mark initiative provides guidance for young people on what is likely to be the best pathway for them, including vocational routes such as apprenticeships, through an interactive web microsite. The university has produced a guide and website for 11 to 16-year-olds, featuring blogs, quizzes, insight into what university life and study are all about, and tips on exam success and money matters.
Universities, given the access that they have to schools, have more potential to be the one-stop shops for careers information and guidance at every level. There is also scope for employers, FE and HE to collaborate more effectively in providing high-quality careers information and guidance in schools, centred around the key themes in the Government’s industrial strategy. The careers and qualifications landscape is becoming increasingly complex, and school careers teams struggle to provide guidance where it is needed most.
Instilling a sense of aspiration in young people would set their lives on a trajectory for success, so I would like the Government to take certain actions. A sense of aspiration would create an inclination for learning that continued after formal education and would create a foundation that could be built on in future years to achieve what, for some people, would be incredible results.
I want the Government to engage with the aspiration agenda; the last time it was considered was five years ago in the report that I mentioned. In that time, life has certainly moved on. I want the agenda to expand beyond education attainment and higher education and to promote not only lifelong learning, but other aspects of vocational qualifications. I want more action to address imbalances in connections and opportunities between deprived pupils from comprehensive schools and those from private and grammar schools with more affluent governing bodies. And, as I said, I want lifelong learning promoted.
Finally, I ask the Minister to recognise that not all parts of the United Kingdom are the same. There are places in my constituency where there is still a yawning chasm in aspiration, and they are not the same as other parts of the country, as the hon. Member for Blackpool South mentioned.
In conclusion, the Government can do a lot more to work in collaboration with not only schools and universities but local government, which is in a unique place to be able to deliver an agenda that has been included in the industrial strategy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this afternoon’s debate. We have quality, not quantity, today; quality was certainly there in great profusion in his speech. He placed a very thoughtful focus on the disparity of aspiration and the issues of achievement. He usefully identified the three key areas, which we could all riff off—the focus on parents and families, on teachers and on extracurricular activity. He reminded us that this subject has been a passion of his and was included in his maiden speech some nine years ago.
I listened with great attention to what the hon. Gentleman said. In this House there is a small group of people who are very dedicated on this subject, but we do not always address in an integrated way the issues of those smaller groups of people, such as looked-after children or young care leavers. There are about 1,000 identified young care leavers in Blackpool. I was interested to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s Barnet initiative—I was going to say the Barnett formula—and he may remember from a previous debate that for a small portion of my life as a student, I resided in his constituency, so I know the differentials of which he speaks.
I was particularly interested in the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the Copthall School. The Gatsby benchmarks are great, but they demand a very intensive approach. We have to be careful that for groups such as the Copthall School they do not end up as the equivalent of the freedom to dine at the Ritz. That is an important issue, which politicians of all parties need to address.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said on the flexibility to move between the academic, the technical and the vocational. Those words get bandied about too often in this place as if they were in silos, which then achieves that result. Flexibility has always been vital and it is even more vital now, given the speed at which subjects, their teaching and careers will mutate over the next few years. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), the former Skills Minister—I am proud to call him my friend, although he is on the other side—along with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), is addressing that point as we speak, taking forward a skills commission that will look at some of those areas. What the hon. Member for Hendon said on that subject was absolutely spot on.
I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments on BTECs. We agree with him. A consultation is out, and the Minister might wish to tell us today when he expects to be able to respond to that consultation. The He knows that there has been a very broad chorus of concern about the possibility of BTECs and other qualifications being swept away before T-levels have been able to prove their worth in practice.
Finally, the hon. Member for Hendon mentioned the importance of the university contribution, and I shall mention a couple of universities as I go along. He mentioned Middlesex University, which I am familiar with. I am pleased to say that I shared a platform with the vice-chancellor, Tim Blackman, only a few weeks ago at an event at the Bridge Group, and I am absolutely delighted that, in the Open University’s 50th anniversary year, Tim is to become its new vice-chancellor. All those are good and positive things.
I believe that aspiration and austerity are incongruous bedfellows. If a Government of any description decide to implement an austerity programme over a long time, as this one and their predecessors have done, there is a danger of that aspiration diminishing. In our view, the Government’s decision to go down that road was not an inevitability—certainly not for the long period that it has continued. I shall not go over the arguments about whether they inherited a growing economy in 2010—we believe that they did, on the base of 2008—but whatever the case, it is concerning that the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights recently said that the Government’s policies of austerity have continued unabated, and that a third of children are now in poverty. Austerity is always a political and ideological choice in some sense or other, and that has been clear in the education system.
I am sad to say that we have seen about 1,000 Sure Start programmes cut from the early years; I genuinely mean that, because Sure Start was one of the great achievements of the Labour Government of 1997 to 2010. Children’s services, schools and further and higher education have also seen considerable cuts since the Conservative party came to power in 2010. The Minister and his colleagues in the Department, in their heart of hearts—I know he has one—know that this is not acceptable. After all, the Secretary of State only recently said that he had heard the concerns about funding loud and clear, and last year it was reported that he was trying to squeeze more money out of the Treasury. However, the Government took £3.5 billion out of the capital spend at the last Budget, and so far the Treasury—although we await a spending review, of course—has only offered schools £400 million, in October 2018. That is thin gruel indeed.
To summarise, those cuts, along with the impact of the public sector pay freeze and then the cap, have created a serious problem in teacher recruitment and retention. The hon. Member for Hendon referred to the importance of teachers. There have been inevitable consequences. The Government have missed the teacher recruitment and retention target for five years, and in the past two years, more teachers have left the profession than have joined it. The hon. Gentleman referred to that in the House, when he said:
“Under this Government, the number of teachers has not kept pace with increasing pupil numbers.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2018; Vol. 650, c. 482.]
I have a question for the Minister: how can we expect schoolchildren to aspire in the way that the hon. Gentleman talked about when there are not enough teachers to encourage them?
On top of that, we have the Government’s commitment to T-levels. The hon. Gentleman talked about their importance, and I agree with him. We share the long-standing concerns of Lord Sainsbury and support the recommendations of the skills plan that was drawn up and presented to the Government, which the Government approved; my friend, the principal of Blackpool and The Fylde College, Bev Robinson, had a considerable part in that plan. Despite all those things, schools and colleges are still unable to deliver at a secondary level the high-quality education that people deserve, because they simply do not have the funding to make ends meet.
The aim, of course, is to expand and attract the coverage of vocational education schools to the secondary sector, which is laudable, but the question is the same. The Government have talked about the subjects and standards that they want to roll out for T-levels, but as to who will actually teach them, there has barely been a peep. Maybe there will be a peep today—I do not know. Are they going to be existing secondary school teachers? Are they FE college lecturers, or associates, or other people entirely? If the Government are serious about T-levels being an ecosystem and not another shiny brand that goes the way of other initiatives, they really must focus on them and not simply spend a quarter of a million pounds on a T-level logo.
Those are important issues. Aspiration, of course, can be hugely developed by teachers, but there is so much more that we can do to unlock the innate inquisitiveness, interest and ambition of young people as they enter secondary education. That transition from primary to secondary, as they approach puberty, in schools where they may have left their primary school friends behind, is often very challenging, not least for young people with special educational needs and disabilities, as the hon. Member for Hendon said. That is why the Sutton Trust and others have said over the years that we need earlier interventions and encounters to play a vital role in improving that aspiration. As I said, I recently argued at the Bridge Group and at this year’s Annual Apprenticeship Conference that that is as relevant to achieving wider social mobility in the vocational and technical sphere as it is in the academic.
I believe we should be looking at sustained and dedicated programmes with schools, for children at a much earlier age, and for particular social and ethnic groupings. I believe that approach is likely to yield much better results than many of the current interventions, late in secondary school, where universities will spend tens of millions of pounds but sometimes, arguably, only strengthen offers and representations from some young people who are likely to have gone to there in substantial numbers anyway.
Earlier this week, in the House of Lords, I was privileged to be present at the launch of a new initiative by the National Education Opportunities Network. Graeme Atherton, who founded NEON in 2012 and has directed it since then, was launching its initiative to improve access for white students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Some 10 new HE provider initiatives are being brought together to better support that group, which is one of the least able and likely, from a secondary background, to attend higher education. It is about raising horizons and expectations, not about fixing pupils’ future career patterns at the age of 10. However, I believe the Government urgently need to look at how that integrates with their careers advice strategy—focusing on what happens in individual areas and the way in which Labour, as a party in government, would make more sense of the fractured and fragmented system of information, advice and guidance that we currently have at secondary level, which we believe is an important consideration. I and my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner)—our shadow Education Secretary—were at a roundtable with stakeholders only this week, discussing how that work might go forward. The Office for Students also has an important role in this area, and I am pleased that it is encouraging collaborative outreach programmes such as those that I have described.
We have been saying for some time that, in a secondary system in which students in schools, FE and sixth-form colleges gain their all-important A-levels or other qualifications at around the age of 18, there must be a robust, independent and wide-ranging review of admissions processes to higher education. That review should focus on a range of things, but particularly the unconditional offers to students of that age that have exploded in recent times, which some have said put those from disadvantaged backgrounds at a key handicap. That is why we believe there is a case for post-qualification admissions, and we were interested to see that the Government have recently asked the OfS to conduct such an inquiry.
The latest OECD international survey on teaching and learning does not, for us in England, make for great reading. England has the world’s eighth-biggest problem with secondary school teacher shortages and the third-highest level of shortages in Europe. For a long time, our party has called for a laser-like focus on the problem of teacher workload; across the continent, secondary school teachers work 37.5 hours a week on average, but in England, that figure is about 47 hours. The question is how much of that is actual teaching, as opposed to paper or virtual bureaucracy. In an environment that leaves many feeling like the proverbial mouse on the treadmill, how are those teachers going to communicate ambition? The digital world and the fourth industrial revolution are all moving ahead at an incandescent pace, and teachers are an absolutely vital element in taking that forward, whether in colleges or schools.
We have 600,000 young people in the category of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training. The Government tell us that that is a stable figure, but it should not be stable; we should be moving on, and I do not see where the Government are taking that issue at the moment. Perhaps the Minister would like to enlighten us.
The Timpson review, which the Government have received, points out that excluded pupils are more likely to already be disadvantaged by class, income, special educational needs or disabilities, with certain ethnic minority groups at a higher risk. Those are the students most in need of support. “Newsnight” recently uncovered more than 1,500 children with SENs or disabilities who are without a school place in England, which only emphasises the problems that Edward Timpson—a respected former Conservative MP and Education Minister—sought to address. The issue of off-rolling needs to be a priority.
The situation, as I say, puts aspiration at serious risk. Right hon. and hon. Members may be familiar with the House of Lords report on the future of seaside towns and cities by my noble Friend the Lord Bassam. That report found that significantly fewer young people from seaside towns and coastal communities can access higher education than those in other parts of England, and that since 2010, there has been a 27% decline in the number of those young people accessing HE. That is another important issue; the Government have identified opportunity access areas, one of which has been Blackpool, but those need to be dealt with more expansively and progressively. The Government’s disappointingly tepid response to the excellent Lords commission illustrates the urgent need to plug this in as a priority for social mobility and economic progress. Many seaside towns suffer from low educational attainment, and local economies then suffer due to skills shortages. These are obviously areas where educational aspiration needs to rank high, and I hope the Minister will consider his Department’s response to that report.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) has spoken in the House about last year’s BBC report that found that malnourished pupils in poorer areas were filling their pockets with food from school canteens due to poverty. My colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), the shadow public health Minister, has also raised the issue of food at school, school meals, and the gaps through which pupils will fall. As any teacher will tell us, they cannot teach children properly if those children are starving, let alone encourage aspiration.
The hon. Member for Hendon talked about lifelong learning; we agree with him entirely. Of course, people can have second and third chances if they have failures at secondary level, but the whole process needs to reflect that. That is one of the things that we are trying to do through the Lifelong Learning Commission that we have set up, which is looking at these issues. The hon. Gentleman, however, has given us a great deal of food for thought—the Minister especially, I hope. We await his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma; I think it is the first time I have done so. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on having secured this debate, and on the interesting and persuasive way in which he introduced it.
Since 2010, the Government have worked hard to drive up academic standards. Our mission has been to ensure that every state school is a good school, teaching a rigorous and balanced curriculum and offering pupils world-class qualifications. Only by having high standards across the board can we enable secondary schools to raise and meet young people’s aspirations. In schools, we are transforming careers education—something dear to my hon. Friend’s heart—to harness young people’s aspirations. Our 2017 careers strategy committed investment, support and resources to help schools make visible and lasting improvements, and since 2010 we have seen an increase in the proportion of pupils receiving a good-quality education. As of December 2018, 1.9 million more children were in good or outstanding schools compared with 2010. Some 85% of children are in good schools, compared with only 66% in 2010, which is partly due to our reforms.
As with implementing any effective change, there is no single silver bullet that will bring about a significant and sustainable improvement in standards. We are under no illusions: there is still much more to be done. However, since 2010, the Government have made radical reforms with a focus on improving school standards. As part of our aspiration to provide children with a world-class education, we reformed the national curriculum, restoring knowledge to its heart and raising expectations of what children should be taught. That is now being delivered by all maintained schools, and sets an ambitious benchmark for academies that we expect them to at least match.
Too many pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, were being entered for low-quality qualifications. We therefore reformed GCSEs to put them on a par with qualifications in the best-performing jurisdictions in the world. The result is a suite of new GCSEs that rigorously assess the knowledge and skills acquired by pupils during key stage 4, and are in line with expected standards in countries with high-performing education systems. A-levels have also been reformed to improve students’ readiness for the demands of higher education.
We introduced the English baccalaureate school performance measure, consisting of English, maths, at least two sciences, history or geography, and a language. Those subjects form part of a compulsory curriculum in many of the highest performing countries internationally, at least up to the age of 15 or 16. The percentage of pupils in state-funded schools taking the EBacc has risen from 22% in 2010 to 38% in 2018. My hon. Friend mentioned Copthall School, and I pay tribute to the headteacher and staff of that school, which has high rates of pupil progress. It is well above average at 0.76 for Progress 8. That does not mean much to many people, but that is a high level of progress. The EBacc entry rate is 50%, which is significantly higher than the national entry rate of 38%. The Government’s ambition is for that entry rate to rise to 75% by 2022 and to 90% by 2025. I do not underestimate the challenge that presents, and I will go on to say what we are doing to support schools to achieve that aim. It is right that we aim to provide the best possible education and therefore more opportunities for young people.
Getting the fundamentals right at an early age is vital for a pupil’s success at secondary school and in later life. Children who are reading well by the age of five are six times more likely than their peers to be on track by age 11 in reading and, counterintuitively, 11 times more likely to be on track in mathematics. Ensuring that all pupils in England’s schools are taught to read effectively has been central to our reforms, and we are now beginning to see the fruits of that work. By the end of year 1, most children should be able to decode simple words using phonics and, once they can do that, they can focus on their wider reading skills and develop a love and habit of reading. In England, phonics performance has significantly improved since we introduced the phonics screening check in 2012. At that time, just 58% of six-year-olds correctly read at least 32 out of the 40 words in the check. In 2018, that figure was 82%.
We can see how that work is having an impact. In 2016, England achieved its highest ever score in the reading ability of nine-year-olds, moving from joint 10th to joint 8th in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study rankings. That follows our greater focus on reading in the primary curriculum and a particular focus on phonics. Continuing improvement in reading ability should mean that more children arrive in secondary school able to access the curriculum and with a higher level of literacy than their predecessors.
Maths, science and computing are also fundamental to raising aspirations. We have funded 35 maths hubs to spread evidence-based approaches to maths teaching through the teaching for mastery programme. An investment of £76 million will expand the programme to reach 11,000 primary and secondary schools by 2023. To encourage more pupils to consider level 3 mathematics qualifications and to continue the rise we have seen in A-level entries over the past eight years, we have launched the advanced mathematics support programme, giving schools an extra £600 a year for each additional pupil taking maths or further maths A-level or any level 3 mathematics qualification.
For the good of our economy, we need more young people to pursue degrees and careers in the sciences, including computer science. We have already seen excellent progress, with entries to STEM A-levels increasing by 23% since 2010. We have also launched a four-year computing programme supported by £84 million of funding. That includes a national centre for computing education, at least 40 hubs providing training to schools and a continuing professional development programme to train up to 8,000 secondary teachers without a post-A level qualification in computing.
My hon. Friend talked a lot about careers advice. He is right that if young people are to raise their aspirations and capitalise on the opportunities available to them, they need good careers guidance. In December 2017, the Government published our careers strategy, setting out proposals to improve the quality and coverage of careers advice in schools and to give more aspirational careers advice for young people. The strategy identifies how the worlds of work and education can come together to support young people, using the Gatsby benchmarks, to which he referred. They are based on rigorous national and international research and are the gold standard for careers provision in England. As part of meeting the Gatsby benchmarks, schools should make sure that students understand the full range of education and training opportunities available to them. Exposure to further and higher education and apprenticeships helps to raise aspiration and allows young people to make the right choices for them.
Information on education or training options provided by schools at key transition points too often fails to correct, or even reinforces, the impression that technical and professional education and apprenticeships are second best to academic study. My hon. Friend is concerned about that, and we share that concern. A new law, introduced in January 2018—commonly known as the Baker clause—requires all secondary schools and academies to open their doors to university technical colleges, FE colleges and apprenticeship providers. That will give all young people a better understanding of the qualifications, courses and subjects available at key transition points.
I do not have those figures to hand, so I will write to the hon. Gentleman when and if we have those statistics. We are as concerned about the issue as he is.
We expect to see schools setting up careers events, assemblies and options evenings so that providers can talk to pupils about what they offer and what it is like to learn in a different environment. The evidence is clear that sustained and varied contacts with mentors, coaches, employer networks, FE colleges, universities, alumni or other high-achieving individuals can motivate pupils to think beyond their immediate experiences, encouraging them to consider a broader and more ambitious range of future education and career options.
Activities involving employers, such as careers insights, mentoring, work tasters and work experience are important in giving young people the skills they need to succeed. Such interactions help open young people’s eyes to choices and opportunities, raise aspirations and prepare them for the world of work. As such, we want to create quality interactions between schools and businesses. The careers statutory guidance makes it clear that schools should offer work placements, work experience and other employer-based activities as part of their careers strategies for pupils in year 8 to year 13. Secondary schools will be expected to provide pupils with at least one meaningful interaction with employers per pupil per year, with a particular focus on STEM employers.
With an expanded role, the Careers & Enterprise Company, which was established in 2014, works to link schools with employers, making sure that every young person has access to inspiring encounters with the world of work, including work experience and other employer-based activities. It does that through its enterprise adviser network, which is delivered in partnership with local enterprise partnerships, providing information tailored to local skills and the local labour market. The network operates in all 38 local enterprise partnership areas and has grown rapidly. More than 2,000 business volunteers have been mobilised to work with schools and colleges on their careers strategies through the enterprise adviser network, and participants have reported a 50% increase in employer encounters for pupils. That partially answers the question raised by the hon. Gentleman, but we will come back to him with a fuller answer.
Through its work, the Careers & Enterprise Company has identified and is targeting those areas where additional provision is most needed. It is funding work during 2019-20 to test new approaches and produce resources to improve careers information, advice and guidance for individuals who are disadvantaged, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, looked-after children and those from minority ethnic groups.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon referred in particular to children in care. Last Monday, we published our children in need review. He also referred to the post-16 qualification review and expressed his view about BTECs. That consultation opened on 19 March 2019 and closed on 10 June 2019. We will respond in due course, and the views that he has expressed today will be taken into account as part of that review process.
Since 2010, the Government have introduced a range of reforms with the sole focus of raising standards. I have set out those standards in relation to secondary education and highlighted how those reforms have been complemented by a range of targeted programmes to support and develop teachers’ practice and to provide timely and effective careers advice for students.
We have certainly had a good opportunity to discuss the issue. Given the nature of today’s debate, I did not want to intervene on either the Opposition or Government Front Bencher. However, I will raise a few issues.
The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), mentioned young carers, which is a very important aspect that is often overlooked. They are a hidden problem within the education system, and it is not always possible for teachers or other school staff to be aware of the requirements being levied on young pupils through disability or social problems experienced by their parents. We certainly need to take their responsibilities at home into account, particularly with regard to their attainment and aspirational opportunities.
The hon. Gentleman spoke particularly about teachers. However, I discussed the influence of not only the teaching establishment but external education providers, such as the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. It is not just about the number and remuneration of teachers. I disagree profoundly with the Labour party’s recent policy of opposing SATs, and their commitment to abolish them. That would be a retrograde step. Parents need the opportunity to gauge a school’s progress and understand how their children’s education is being advanced.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 600,000 NEETs, which he said has been a stubborn figure that has not moved. That is certainly another area that I would like to look at, and I encourage the Government to do likewise. The Local Government Association should take the lead when it comes to both NEETs and young carers. The Local Government Act 2000 allows local authorities to do anything within their social, environmental and wellbeing powers to address problems in their local areas. This is a particular problem, not only in rural areas but in coastal constituencies, and local authorities are best able to address it.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned a 27% decline in access to higher education among coastal communities. We should be careful with statistics—I certainly have been very careful with the ones that I have used today—because it could simply be that those people have gone into forms of education and training other than higher education. Indeed, they may even have gone into employment of their own accord, such as self-employment.
To address some of the Minister’s comments, I have become a great fan of the EBacc system. Making choices about A-levels at a younger age—often 15 or even younger—is not always the best option. When I visited Middlesex University I was told that when pupils are asked whether they want to be a doctor or surgeon most of them say, “No way! Why would I want to do that?” However, when they are asked questions such as whether they want to work with people, they are more likely to say that they would. That can be extended to considering other opportunities. Whether somebody ultimately engages in medicine and becomes a surgeon or looks at other areas, offering an occupation rather than an opportunity at a young age is the wrong approach.
The Minister and I have previously discussed reading, which he is as passionate about as I am. I know that he reads every day before he goes to sleep, and I read every day, on the tube and whenever I can. I am very encouraged by the statistics that he mentioned about reading ability. For me, reading has become a lifelong passion. It is my mother teaching me to read, as well as my education, that has led to lifelong learning. That has all come from reading, so it can only be good.
Finally, the Minister mentioned the Baker clause, which is very welcome, and the 23% increase in the number of STEM subjects at A-level. I have certainly seen that in schools in my constituency, including Copthall School for girls, which I have now mentioned on two occasions in this place.
Action has been taken by the Government and progress has been made, but raising aspiration cannot be achieved simply by Government. I mentioned the Local Government Association, and the Opposition spokesman mentioned teachers. Parents and relatives also have a responsibility to ensure aspiration in their children by providing guidance and encouragement along their pathway through life. Through a collaboration of all those different influences, we can achieve higher rates of aspiration, and make our country an even better place.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered raising aspiration in secondary education.