Inequality and Social Mobility

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:56 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Shadow Minister (International Trade) 5:56 pm, 12th June 2019

It is a pleasure to follow my friend Gillian Keegan. My constituency ranks bottom—533rd out of 533 of all English constituencies—for school-age social mobility. Put simply, anyone growing up in Bradford South has far fewer opportunities than someone growing up in a wealthier area. Rather than just talking about social mobility in a narrow sense, I want to look more closely at how opportunity is distributed in this country. I believe that it is a structural problem that requires a structural response.

Ultimately, the key to improving life chances for everyone is to redistribute opportunity more equally. At the moment, some people and some places have more opportunities than others—opportunities to go to an outstanding school, to get into the best universities, to access high-paying jobs. This must change.

In the short time I have, I want to focus on three areas: first, how we can empower schools to improve life chances; secondly, the role and future of the Government’s opportunity areas scheme, particularly in Bradford; and finally, the vital role that further education has to play in redistributing opportunity.

I would like to start, as other hon. Members have, by commending the Social Mobility Commission for its excellent recent “State of the Nation” report, which breaks down in forensic detail the scale of the problem we face. I was pleased to attend a meeting between the APPG on social mobility, chaired by my hon. Friend Justin Madders, and the commission. The commission rightly points out that schools are an essential vehicle for social mobility. In fact, I would go as far as to say that schools are the essential vehicle for social mobility. Good schools, as many of us know, can turn a child’s life around and open up opportunities they never had before.

We need to empower schools to do more to improve social justice. Of course, this is partly about funding. Education cuts do not fall on children equally. We know that cuts to support staff, after-school activities and targeted interventions impact disproportionately on disadvantaged children. I am concerned about the number of children who arrive at my primary schools with severely delayed speech and language skills. Headteachers across my constituency have raised that issue with me, and I recently met the children’s communication charity, I CAN, to discuss solutions. I CAN has developed a 10-week programme aimed at four, five and six-year-olds to deliver a language boost, and it is targeted at disadvantaged children. In the current funding climate, schools will struggle to fund such vital schemes.

I now turn to the opportunity areas programme, the Government’s place-based social mobility programme, which is targeted at 12 social mobility cold spots, including Bradford. In Bradford, the scheme is focused on improving the quality of teaching, improving literacy and oracy, and widening access to good jobs. While it is too soon to evaluate properly the success of the Bradford opportunity area, I would like to make a few points. We need clearer information about where the money is being spent. I am concerned that it does not always reach the communities, including those I represent, that need it most. If such schemes are to be successful, they must be open and accountable, including to Members of Parliament, and run over at least five years, with early and regular evaluation so that we can see their real impact.

The Government should also expand cross-departmental working in opportunity areas to include the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Work and Pensions. Finally, we need clarity, which I hope the Minister can provide today, about whether the Government intend to continue with the opportunity areas programme beyond 2020. People in my constituency deserve a clear answer on that.

Further education colleges take on an increasing proportion of our disadvantaged young people for their post-16 education, at a time when they face severe funding shortfalls. Those Government funding cuts, coupled with an historical debt, has led Bradford College, my local college, to propose making over 130 redundancies in a workforce of around 850. That cannot be right. The Government must increase per-student funding for 16-19 education, reintroduce the education maintenance allowance and consider a student premium for disadvantaged students in FE.

A child growing up in Bradford South should have as many life chances and opportunities as a child from the wealthiest parts of the country. It cannot be acceptable that some children are born more equal than others. That will not be solved by any one policy alone. We need a wholesale response to bring about structural change to redistribute opportunity.