Social mobility is a top priority right across the Department, from the early years at school to supporting disadvantaged students into university and improving technical education.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. However, as the party of aspiration, what more are our Government doing to help our young people achieve their dreams? Specifically, what are we doing through the secondary school system, which is formative in developing their future roles?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. Of course, the attainment gap has narrowed by 10% at secondary school, but she is right to say that we need constantly to be thinking about aspiration, which is why our careers strategy and the work of the Careers & Enterprise Company are so important.
Grouped—I understand, Mr Speaker. I was slightly wrong-footed, as ever.
Irrespective of political persuasion or ideology, everyone in this House will agree that the state has a special responsibility towards vulnerable children in care. Only 6% or 7% of them get to university, and 60% of them have behavioural and mental health challenges. We must congratulate the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation and Buttle UK on their work in providing bursaries for university. Does the Minister agree that we must look to expand work in this area?
I do agree with my hon. Friend that we need to expand work in that area, and I commend the charities that he mentioned, including for their work to inform local authorities about how to make placements in boarding schools. It is true that for the right child at the right time and at the right school, boarding can create a life-changing opportunity. Encouragement into university is also vital, of course.
A recent OECD report stated that the children of poor families are likely to take five generations to start to earn an average income, compared with two generations for families in Denmark and three in Sweden. Why has it taken the United Kingdom so long to bridge this gap?
These are big topics and, indeed, stubborn statistics that take quite some time to move. As anybody who has compared the 1970 cohort with the 1958 cohort will attest, it is a problem that goes back through multiple Governments, but we need to keep working on it. The most recent OECD statistics show a more encouraging picture than there was previously thought to be. [Interruption.]
Given the Government’s apparent commitment to social mobility, would it not be a good idea to introduce a social mobility impact assessment for all Government policies and budget plans? That way, we might avoid stories such as the one that appears today in Nursery World, which details how across the country 27 schemes targeted at the most disadvantaged children in the early years have had to be scrapped because of changes to the early years funding formula.
We believe that any young person who has the potential to benefit from university should be able to do so, and the existing system helps to facilitate exactly that. More than £800 million is being spent on access encouragement from universities. We need to make sure that that is spent as well as it can be, to make sure that any young person from any background has an equal opportunity to benefit.
A huge block to social mobility is the Government’s policy of forcing schools to pay the first £6,000 of costs to support children with special needs. Does the Secretary of State accept that that penalises schools for taking students with additional needs, incentivises doing the wrong thing, impoverishes those schools that do the right thing and, most of all, hurts children with special needs and their families? Will he agree fully to fund education healthcare plans?
The hon. Gentleman is right to look at things such as the incentives that are inherent in the system. Of course, schools have a notional special educational needs budget, which is what the first £6,000 is supposed to be linked to, but we keep all these matters under review right across the system—in mainstream schools and special schools.
If the hon. Members for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) and for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) were listening to what Tim Farron had to say, they will have observed that references to SEN are perfectly orderly in the context of this question. That is a hint; whether they take the hint is up to them, but the Speaker is trying to be helpful to Back Benchers, which is what I have spent nine and a half years doing.
An independent review of higher education funding is under way. Does the Secretary of State agree that any proposals in that review that are regressive in nature, that would reintroduce a student number cap or that would act in effect as a brake on social mobility are not recommendations that this Government should accept?
It goes without saying that my right hon. Friend has very considerable expertise in this area and I take what she says extremely seriously. The review that she mentions is informed by an independent panel. That independent panel has not yet completed its work and the Government have not yet considered what recommendations may come forward, but, of course, social mobility must be at the heart.
Nursery schools play a crucial role in promoting social mobility, and that includes the outstanding Ellergreen and East Prescot Road nursery schools in my constituency. The Secretary of State will know that there is widespread concern about the long-term funding for nursery schools. Will he announce today that we will hear shortly long-term sustainable funding for nursery schools?
We do, of course, appreciate the particular and special role that maintained nurseries play in the system. We have funding up to 2020, as he knows, and we need to look at what happens thereafter.
The Secretary of State will be fully aware that the high-needs budget affects certain areas more than others. In Hertfordshire in particular there is concern among many teachers and parents that the system just is not working well enough for them. What comfort can he give to my parents and teachers who feel that the provision for children with special needs is not working well enough at the moment?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The funding for high needs has been going up, and will reach just under £6 billion. In Hertfordshire, it has risen by 4.3% this year. Our reforms from 2014 were the most significant reforms in this area for a generation, but obviously we need to continue to strive more.
Suffolk has been criticised for a particularly poor range of special educational needs and disability provision. Given the fragmentation of local education decision making in this country now, how would the Minister advise that that could be addressed?
I know that local authorities work with each other to share best practice and to look at what happens. A whole range of things needs to be considered from, of course, training provision for teachers in mainstream schools, to the availability of places in special schools and so on. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman’s local authority will look at all those areas as well.
Hastings is one of the opportunity areas supported and funded by the Government, which will be the biggest driver of social mobility for those of us in it in a generation. Although we celebrate the success and work closely with the Department for Education to make sure that it delivers on those changes, such is the success that we are now concerned about the end of the opportunity area funding. May I urge the Secretary of State to think carefully about how that end might be smoothed so that areas such as Hastings, which will get such extraordinary change from the opportunity area, do not suddenly find themselves cut off?
I am thinking carefully about that. It was always the intention that it would be a three-year programme and that we would then take learnings from the opportunity areas both to continue that programme in those areas, and also to look at what could work elsewhere, and we continue to look at that. May I commend my right hon. Friend for her personal leadership in the Hastings opportunity area, which I had the chance to visit recently?
Successive Conservative Education Secretaries of State have rightly identified sixth form colleges as engines of social mobility, yet the rate for 16-to-18 funding has not changed for many, many years under this and their predecessor Government. Is it not time to raise the rate?
It is. As someone who has a long passion and personal professional experience in the sixth form sector, the hon. Gentleman is right to identify that 16-to-18 funding is tight. That is, of course, something that we need to keep under review and have in mind as we come up to the spending review. There are, of course, things such as the maths premium. For some colleges, the T-levels funding will also be relevant.
The Minister knows that key to closing the social mobility gap is access to high-quality early years education for those who need it most. Therefore, he will be as concerned as I was to see a report by PACEY—the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years—released today, finding a downward trend in qualification levels for childminders while the number of nursery workers in training is dropping too. His own Department’s figures show that only one in four families earning under £20,000 is accessing 30 hours of free childcare a week, which might be because the same report shows that more than half of private nurseries have put up their fees in the past 12 months. Can he tell us how less well-off families unable to access more expensive childcare with less qualified staff closes the social mobility gap?
That was so good that one would think the hon. Lady had experience of acting.
The hon. Lady is right to identify the centrality of the hundreds of thousands of dedicated people who work in nurseries and early years settings. She mentioned the 30-hours offer and the differences in different income groups. A lone parent has to earn just over £6,500 to be able to access the 30-hours offer. That is one of five extensions of early years and childcare support that have been made available by our Governments since 2010. Overall, by the end of the decade, we will be investing an extra £1 billion, rising to £6 billion in total, on early years in childhood.