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Covid-19: Social Mobility

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 21 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on social mobility.

My Lords, the Government are committed to levelling up opportunity across the country. The £1 billion catch-up package announced on 19 June is designed to tackle the impact of lost teaching time. Included in the package is a national tutoring programme worth £350 million to increase access to high-quality tuition for the most disadvantaged young people. This will help to accelerate their progress and prevent any widening of the gap between them and their more affluent peers.

I thank the Minister for her response. She will be aware that, before Covid-19, research by the Social Mobility Commission and others pointed out the barriers to social mobility in Britain. Covid-19 has now resulted in school closures and greater unemployment, as well as other damaging effects. Why does the Minister think that measures aimed at improving social mobility in the past have failed and how will the Government deal with the extra challenges of Covid-19?

My Lords, it is obviously not yet possible to know the full impact of the pandemic on social mobility in this country. However, since 2010, the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and their counterparts has been narrowing. The £1 billion catch-up package is significant and, as I said, will hopefully help to ensure that we do not see the gap widening.

My Lords, the Association of Colleges’ summer survey, published yesterday, indicates that three out of four colleges require additional resources to provide free college meal vouchers to eligible students over the summer. In my diocese, 52% of students at City College Southampton receive free college meals. We welcome the £96 million of ring-fenced funding announced yesterday for all 16 to 19 providers to supply additional catch-up tutoring. Will the Minister say how the Government will support colleges to ensure that all eligible students receive free college meals over the summer?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has stolen my thunder. We have indeed announced a £96 million package to support the FE sector, and we recognise that more than 200,000 16 year-olds are educated in that sector. The Social Mobility Commission commended the discretionary bursary funding that is available for disadvantaged students attending FE colleges, which should go some way to helping those students.

My Lords, there is nothing more important to social mobility than education, and now Covid has caused a generation of children to miss months of school, affecting their life chances. That is especially true for those who have exams next year. Does the Minister not agree that we should be mobilising an army of volunteers to help teach in summer schools?

My Lords, along with the catch-up package, it was announced that schools will be equipped with Teach First summer school resources and that £7 million will go towards holiday activities and clubs. However, my noble friend is correct in what she said about students taking exams next year. That is why disadvantaged year 10 students are among those who will be provided with one of the 200,000 laptops we have had delivered.

Is the Minister aware that if we do not extend the ban on evictions beyond 23 August, we will have an enormous amount of downward social mobility, with children and their parents moving into poverty, homelessness and fecklessness? I would like to see all the departments working together to stop hundreds and thousands of children falling into homelessness and having their futures destroyed.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that Covid recovery is of course a cross-government priority. In relation to housing matters, he will be aware that the working families tax credit was increased by an additional £1,000 and that changes were made to local housing allowances during this period.

Can I take the Minister back to her answer to my noble friend Lady Massey’s supplementary question? Does she or does she not accept that decline in social mobility predates Covid-19? Though the epidemic has exacerbated problems, too many young people were already facing a life of insecure and low-paid work as a result of years of austerity and a lack of focus on issues of inequality in our education and social security systems. Does she accept that blame should not be laid entirely on the pandemic and that government policy must also take its share?

My Lords, the quality of employment for young people has been a priority for this Government. That is why we have seen the development of high-quality apprenticeships and £2,000 additional funding, of which the noble Baroness will be aware, for each young person who is taken on to an apprenticeship after 1 August this year, for a limited period of time. I referenced the attainment gap, which is more of an academic measure. However, there are improvements in social mobility when one looks at, for instance, the number of disadvantaged students going on to university. However, we strive for greater and more dynamic social mobility in this country.

My Lords, we know that the early years are a crucial stage for social mobility, with the poorest children already 11 months behind their better-off peers when they start school. Recent work by the Sutton Trust on the impact of Covid has shown that one-third of early years providers in the most disadvantaged areas may have to close within a year, and that almost 70% of settings anticipate operating at a loss over the next six months. Given this, will the Minister say what plans the Government have to introduce a package of support for early years providers in the coming months, including an increase to the early years pupil premium for at least the next year?

My Lords, the education sector is made up of a number of different types of providers, and early years providers are businesses, except for the maintained nursery sector. I am delighted to tell the noble Baroness that, yesterday evening, the Government announced that the early years entitlement of £3.6 billion a year will be paid in the autumn term, regardless of the number of disadvantaged 2 year-olds, or 3 and 4 year-olds, who are attending. That is a massive plank of financial support for the sector going forward in what are, unfortunately, uncertain times.

My Lords, every child from whatever background needs to be furnished with the tools to make a success of their life, whether that be through further education or going straight into employment from school. This Government have made a commitment to levelling up society. To help fulfil this agenda and to increase social mobility, does my noble friend agree that apprenticeships remain a route to assist young people to be introduced to the workplace, providing them with the necessary skills and training that will help them on the ladder and opening up future opportunities? What plans do the Government have to ensure that apprenticeships are a realistic option for our young people in this challenging Covid environment?

My Lords, apprenticeships are indeed a valuable opportunity for many young people. The ASK programme—apprenticeship support and knowledge—equips teachers to make sure that young people are aware of these opportunities. The funding I have outlined is in addition to the £1,000 already given to employers to take on apprentices who are aged 16 to 18 or are under 25 with an EHC plan. During the crisis, their training has been made flexible so that it can be done remotely, and we have encouraged employers to furlough apprentices when they can.

My Lords, I draw attention to my declaration in the register of interests. The Minister will know that the most recent Social Mobility Commission audit found that the Government had not done enough to help disadvantaged 16 to 19 year-olds with a student premium or to help the poorest into post-school training. Will Ministers now reverse cuts to further education colleges and act to increase participation in adult education? What steps will they take to ensure that, post Covid, low-income, working-class households will get fairer access to higher education?

My Lords, as part of the skills recovery package, the Chancellor announced £100 million to support young people who want a high-value level 2 or 3 qualification where there might not be employment opportunities. FE capital is part of the “build, build, build” response to the recovery. A White Paper in the autumn will outline this Government’s priority to have an FE sector that is no longer the Cinderella of the higher education sector.