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Covid-19: Social Mobility

Volume 808: debated on Monday 7 December 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the implications of their policies to address the COVID-19 pandemic for social mobility in England.

My Lords, social mobility is at the core of the department’s policies. The Government remain dedicated to ensuring that every child and young person will gain the opportunity to succeed and we are committed to providing them with the necessary skills and knowledge. That is why the Government have given unprecedented support, including the £1 billion catch-up fund, to help to tackle the attainment gap, along with an investment of over £195 million on technology to support remote education and access to online social care.

My Lords, I am glad to hear that we are trying to address the question of what is being called the potential lost generation, who may not get the chance of social mobility through education and work that others have had. But there is another lost generation and I would like the department to look at the possibility of addressing the 35% of children who we are already fail at school. Those are not my figures but those of the noble Baroness’s department. We fail those who leave school having had nothing that you could call an education. They fill our prisons and our A&E departments and join our long-term unemployed and working poor, and they die younger because they do not have any social mobility. May I suggest that this is the time for building back better so that we can address this lost generation that is already with us?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that we want to make sure to avoid this potential loss for young people, and education is of course a major protective factor in their lives. However, more disadvantaged students are in better schools than they were in 2010, with 86% of our schools being “good” or “outstanding”. During the pandemic, many school leaders have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that disadvantaged students can catch up. Just one of the initiatives is that as of April, any adult who does not have a level 3 qualification can go to an FE college or other college or institution and get their first qualification at that level.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will have seen today the IPPR report on the state of the north, which again shows shocking levels of child poverty. It is obvious that Covid has pushed these children even further down the ladder. Levelling up will work only if the toxic link between child poverty and school failure is broken. Why is that long-term strategy not being prioritised in the spending review? When can we expect a long-term plan for children’s learning and welfare which is equal to the urgency and gravity of the situation?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness that specific emergency help has been provided to ensure that children who needed a meal when their schools were closed were given support and that the early years sector in particular was given funding, as were schools, irrespective of the young people who were attending them. Vulnerable children with an EHC plan or those who were in need were offered a school place even during the lockdown. Enabling more disadvantaged students to do well is core to the Government’s strategy.

My Lords, the pandemic has exacerbated the lack of opportunities and inequalities for so many. We continue to witness the return on capital exceeding economic growth. Are the Government seriously considering implementing higher taxation on wealth and inheritance to help improve opportunities for those who are limited in them?

My Lords, social mobility, as the noble Lord has rightly outlined, is more than just for the Department for Education. It also impacts on the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Unfortunately, I am not able to answer the noble Lord’s specific question, but I will write to him once I have a response from Her Majesty’s Treasury.

My Lords, as highlighted in a recent report by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre of NESTA, only 16% of people who work in the creative industries are from working-class social origins. Covid has had a devastating impact on the opportunities of people from that background and from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds. Will my noble friend look at the recommendations of the policy and evidence centre—including, for example, reforming the Kickstart programme—and work with it, as we come out of the pandemic, to increase life chances?

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I am sure he is aware that, through the Culture Recovery Fund, we have given £1.57 billion to support that sector. I hope he is aware of the educational aspects of cultural diversity that sit within the Department for Education, such as the music and dance scheme. I have yet to read of a scheme like that that is not pivoted towards disadvantaged children and children who have free school meals, or towards improving the diversity of those who access culture.

My Lords, we all know that social mobility relies not just on education but on work opportunities beyond education. What work will the Government undertake to bring together companies that have profited substantially during the pandemic—those that distribute to households, supermarkets, and pharmaceutical and alcohol companies—to make up the deficit of hundreds of thousands of internships and apprenticeships that have been cancelled by companies that have lost profit and business during the pandemic? Will the Government commit to the #10000BlackInterns programme launched by two City businessmen, three weeks ago?

My Lords, it is encouraging to see, even without being asked by the Government, the flurry of businesses returning their business rates relief. We all have to tackle this pandemic together and the effect on different employers has been disparate. I can assure the noble Lord that, on apprenticeships, we have offered employers £2,000 for anybody under the age of 25 they take on, and £1,500 for anybody over the age of 25. We are doing what we can to support them, as well as the £2 billion Kickstart scheme, which offers six-month jobs for those between 16 and 24 on universal credit to give them an entry into the workplace.

My Lords, women in low-paid insecure work have borne the triple threat of job losses, falling income and the explosion of unpaid care needs during the Covid pandemic. What work is being done by the Government now to address the structural barriers that women—working-class women in particular—face, including to combat low pay and secure further gains on shared childcare and caring responsibilities more generally?

My Lords, I also have the privilege of being the Minister for Women, and we are looking at the entitlement to flexible working. I am also pleased that we are focused on ensuring that the economic recovery is for women as well. We have been encouraged by how the digital skills boot camps have not only met targets for women’s participation but exceeded them. I am pleased to say that, in April 2021, the national living wage will be going up 2.2% to £8.91, so we are looking to help women in particular gain the advantages of the economy recovering.

Would the Minister give a thought to people who have failed in the examinations system, who will increasingly become unemployed and present themselves for benefits? Could some assessment be made of whether they have commonly occurring educational problems such as dyslexia and dyspraxia, so that they can have a form of assessment and thus start to implement at least basic coping strategies, if not educational programmes?

My Lords, as part of our response to the pandemic, the Government are investing £900 million in additional work coaches. We have also made £100 million available for high-value courses for 18 and 19 year-olds who might leave college when there are no employment opportunities. That is in addition to the digital skills boot camps and the online skills portal that we have set up, so we are providing opportunities and supporting more work coaches. We have invested more in the careers service, as well, to help with the issue that the noble Lord outlines.

My Lords, I speak today on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, who has been delayed travelling to London. Like her, I am very aware of the relationship between child poverty and a lack of social mobility, but she has a special interest as independent chair of the North of Tyne Inclusive Economy Board. Child poverty is central to the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Since 35% of children in the north-east of England live in relative poverty, would the Minister tell us if Her Majesty’s Government will work with the Social Mobility Commission to develop a national child poverty strategy in response to the Covid-19 pandemic?

My Lords, the Social Mobility Commission is an arm’s-length body of the department. We monitor its reports carefully and take its recommendations into account. I will write to the right reverend Prelate on this specific request.

My Lords, as far as social mobility policies are concerned, how much of the splendid proposed “biggest funding boost” for schools will be spent on teaching children how to buy and cook the right food, economically, to reduce the obesity epidemic and narrow the gap between rich and poor?

As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, we have a childhood obesity strategy. Part of the national curriculum is also about food and nutrition. That is compulsory in maintained schools, but can form part of education in academies. There is also now a food and nutrition GCSE, so this is provided for within the school system.

Sitting suspended.