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Social Mobility Commission

Volume 790: debated on Monday 23 April 2018


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made on the appointment of the new Chair and members of the Social Mobility Commission.

On behalf of my noble friend Lord Lennie, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the recruitment of a new chair of the commission is well under way. Applications have now closed and I am pleased to report that we have had a strong response. We will recruit new commissioners as soon as possible after the appointment of the new chair to allow him or her to provide input. These are public appointments, and the process will be completed following the governance code for public appointments.

My Lords, it is now nearly five months since the commission resigned en masse because it had been reduced to a rump of four from 10, and felt that it was not being listened to. As the Conservative chair of the Education Committee observed, this seemed extraordinary in light of the Prime Minister’s concern to fight burning injustices, and given that the commission’s final report warned that there is no overall national strategy to tackle the social economic and geographic divisions facing the country. What steps are the Government now taking as a matter of urgency to develop such a strategy and to reconstitute a strengthened commission to oversee it, as recommended by the Education Committee?

My Lords, the national strategy for social mobility is focused on removing barriers to opportunity for all, including disadvantaged people and places—whether it is through education, using the pupil premium, in which the Government have invested £13 billion since 2011, closing the attainment gap, which has narrowed by 10% in the last seven years, or increasing the national living wage by 4.4% at the beginning of this month, and by £2,000 a year since April 2016. The recommendations of the Education Select Committee are being considered by the Government, but our commitment to improving the lot, particularly of the least advantaged, remains paramount.

What are the Government doing to help break down barriers between children from different religious and cultural backgrounds?

My Lords, we have an ongoing process of education. We announced the integration strategy a couple of weeks ago, using the schools linking programme to create sustained opportunities for children of different backgrounds to mix and socialise, and strengthening expectations on integration for all new free schools.

In light of the fact that the last report of the Social Mobility Commission indicated that intergenerational poverty and deprivation was as bad, if not worse, in rural England than anywhere else, including urban England, can we assume that an appointment to the commission will go to someone who truly understands the particular nature of rural poverty and deprivation? In other words, are these appointments being rural-proofed?

My Lords, the Government govern for all of Britain, including rural areas, where I live, so I can assure the noble Lord that that will be an important part of the criteria in the interview process.

My Lords, greater social mobility was one of the drivers of the original academies programme set up by the last Labour Government, which was why some of us supported it so strongly. Does the Minister believe that that still holds true for academies now and that widening educational opportunities for the disadvantaged is the key factor in promoting social mobility?

The right reverend Prelate is correct, and we ought to record our great debt of gratitude to him personally as one of the very first academy sponsors in Norfolk. I have seen the work that he has done. The short answer is yes. We have taken 1,950 previously largely failing schools into sponsored academy status. At the time they came in, only 10% of them were rated good or better. Today, 70% of those are good or better, which accounts for about 450,000 children. So I see the academy programme as a vital plank in social mobility.

My Lords, from the evidence that we have heard, social mobility inequalities are not narrowing or improving, despite what we have heard from the noble Lord and despite what the Prime Minister pledged—to make Britain a country that works for everyone. Can the Minister say why the Government are not prioritising this and why is it not improving—or is it that the Government are rather preoccupied with something else?

My Lords, I assure noble Lords that it is a very high priority of this Government. If we look at some of the papers and initiatives that have been launched just over the past few months, we can see the 30-hours policy in December 2017, which was aimed at disadvantaged families. Then there was Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential, aimed at improving social mobility, issued in December. I mentioned earlier the integration strategy, and we had a careers strategy in December 2017. These are all aimed at improving social mobility.

My Lords, it is clear that social mobility in the UK is declining. Will the Government issue some clear priorities and set out some clear targets by which we can measure social mobility?

My Lords, I respectfully disagree with the noble Lord; I do not believe that that is the case. The number of children living in poverty has actually declined since 2010. In the recent social mobility action plan that we issued in December, we reasserted our aim to focus on areas such as the word gap, which we know is one of the biggest areas of disadvantage for young children. We have put more emphasis on high-quality post-16 choices for all young people and, as I mentioned at the beginning, we have closed the attainment gap by 10% in the last seven years.

My Lords, in 2016 your Lordships’ House had a one-year Select Committee looking into social mobility, on which I served as a member. We looked at social mobility for those young people who did not go to university. In fact, the majority of young people go into jobs, vocational training such as apprenticeships or into further education. Could the Minister please outline whether there is an intention by the department to ensure that some of the commissioners come from a non-university education background?

My Lords, I certainly hope so, because I did, so I know that it is quite possible to have an interesting and fulfilling life without having gone to university. Our T-levels are very much aimed at that group of people who do not consider a university career as their priority. There is a growing awareness that there are other routes. There is an education and skills company that is also doing a lot of work with schools, providing mentoring and showing that there are routes other than just university.