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Social Mobility

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 15 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Social Mobility Commission The long shadow of deprivation, published on 15 September.

My Lords, we welcome the Social Mobility Commission’s report and its contribution to the evidence supporting our levelling-up agenda. The report confirms that education plays a key role in spreading opportunities so that every child in every part of the country has a fair chance. That is why we have announced the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade, giving schools more money for every child, and established opportunity areas in social mobility cold spots.

My Lords, the Government’s investment in opportunity areas is indeed welcome and is making a difference. Nevertheless, this report reveals that in one in every six local authority areas, two boys born into equal disadvantage will have vastly different earnings as adults. In those areas, only two-thirds of the pay gap can be explained by education; it is simply about where they grew up. Many of those places are designated opportunity areas, but many are not. Given their commitment to levelling up, can the Minister say whether the Government will increase opportunity areas funding, and will they extend the programme to reach all the cold spots identified in this report?

My Lords, each of the 12 opportunity areas have already been encouraged, because of their positive outcomes, to twin with an additional area. In addition to the £90 million we put into the opportunity areas, £22 million was put into essential life skills, so there was an additional initiative, but the continuation of the opportunity areas is obviously a subject for the spending review.

My Lords, I welcome this report and it is good to hear the Minister welcome it too. Deprivation is an issue that goes to the core of natural justice, and therefore our common good as a nation. Does the Minister accept in particular the report’s findings that employment interventions are as critical as educational improvement in addressing systematic inequalities and levelling up? What additional steps do the Government propose to take to improve employment opportunities, particularly when facing the current recession, in the cold spots that the report identifies across the nation?

My Lords, the report was co-commissioned by the department and uses the longitudinal educational outcomes data the department has been collecting. Yes, in addition to skills, social mobility obviously does not end at the age of 18. That is why we have made level 3 qualifications fully funded from April next year—available to everyone, regardless of age. We are looking at digital training and digital boot camps in areas of the country. There is a whole effort in reskilling at the moment.

My Lords, the report of the Social Mobility Commission usefully reminds us that widespread social disadvantage can be successfully countered by carefully tailored interventions. Does the Minister agree that a school ethos that encourages aspiration, such as that of the Guru Nanak Academy in Hayes, which has well above average results in GCSEs and A-levels, despite pupils coming mostly from a deprived background, is also important in enhancing life chances?

My Lords, yes, the report highlights how important education is, but says that it is not the only factor, particularly in areas with great disparity in household income. I agree with the noble Lord on the ethos in schools. That is why, in addition to the opportunity areas, a specific school programme called Opportunity North East is being run by the department, focused on secondary schools in the north-east, where we see that primary school attainment is around the national average, but it drops off at secondary school, so we are intervening directly in schools as well.

My Lords, this is a very sobering report, which recommends a place-based approach that, yes, has education interventions but much more than that. We know that the pandemic has made things much worse for children in poor families and their communities. Can the Minister assure us that there will be further place-based interventions where the money is awarded with integrity, based on sound data and not, quite honestly, with the bad taste of political interference that still lingers over the last round of the Towns Fund?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness that local enterprise partnerships are, as the report outlines, one of the solutions here in opportunity areas. They are funded by a grant to the local authority, so it is up to the local authority to then put the stakeholders around the table, and the LEPs are very much involved in that. We are also trying to support disadvantaged children nationwide by developing a national tutoring programme.

My Lords, the report makes clear that both place and education have significant impacts on social mobility. What assessment have the Government made of the additional impact of Covid in further exacerbating such differentials?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. In terms of the impact of Covid, we have recently commissioned Renaissance Learning to assess children as they return to school, and that is being evaluated by the EPI. One reason that is very positive is that it will not be an additional burden on teachers. Renaissance Learning is a tool that schools already use, so they have baseline data and, as they begin to use the same tool again, we should have an assessment as soon as possible of where children are in their education.

My Lords, I must declare my interest as the promoter of university technical colleges, which are major agents of social mobility, as we have a very challenging intake. I give just one statistic. In July of this year, our UTC in Tower Hamlets, the Mulberry UTC, had 78 leavers, mainly girls, most with English as a second language, and generally within the school, 40% come from deprived homes. Of its 78 leavers, 69 went to universities to study STEM subjects in health—88%. If you are born in Tower Hamlets, your chance of going to university is just 12%, so 88% compared to 12% is quite good for social mobility.

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for his tenacity and perseverance with university technical colleges, and thoroughly enjoyed the recent round table that I hosted on UTCs. We are indeed seeing more children from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university: 23.1% went into higher education, the highest proportion since records began. We also know that 59.1% of black students are now entering higher education, so, along with the efforts of UTCs, I pay tribute to the efforts of schools, which are paying dividends.

My Lords, the Social Mobility Commission report looks only at boys, and apparently the model cannot be adjusted for part-time work. What work is being done in government to look at the impact of gender inequalities on social mobility, including issues such as part-time work, increased caring responsibilities and low pay? That way, we can properly judge the policy changes needed to address inequality and social mobility issues for boys and girls, particularly post Covid.

As noble Lords will be aware, I also hold the privilege of being the Minister for Women. Unfortunately, the link data that the LEO relies on does not contain women’s data at the moment, but we are aware of the increased caring responsibilities that women are taking on, particularly during the pandemic. Subject to consultation, there will be an employment Bill that will make flexible working the default option, unless there is good reason otherwise. There is also a proposal for a £1 billion childcare fund, so we are aware of the importance of that issue for women in the workplace.

The commission’s report says that,

“a long-run shift to further homeworking would open up new opportunities that could spread … high-quality jobs more widely across the country”.

What are the Government doing to ensure that residents in deprived areas can easily access well-paid public sector jobs by working from home? That is particularly important in this time of Covid.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Viscount is aware that, even before this current situation, the Government had a specific initiative in relation to their workforce in Whitehall to look at moving as much as possible of the government function outside London. Around half the Department for Education’s workforce is outside London, and we are major employers in places such as Darlington. In relation to opportunity areas, teaching is obviously not a work-from-home job, but this has been about attracting teachers to those opportunity areas, and in many of them it has been successful.