Inequality and Social Mobility

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 6:30 pm, 12th June 2019

It is a delight to follow the really thoughtful speech of my hon. Friend Mr Sweeney.

I do not believe that there is a parent who does not want the best for their child, and I do not believe that there is a teacher or a school that does not want the best for their pupils. I do not even believe that there is a politician or party that does not want every child to get as far as their hard work takes them. Why, then, in the 21st century and the fifth largest economy in the world are the life chances of our children still determined by the economic status of their parents? The statistical reality is that social mobility has remained virtually stagnant since 2014, and for children born into a family at the bottom of the income distribution, it will take five generations for them to move up to the average income.

These are the roots of social mobility, and they start from birth, leaving an attainment gap that will be lifelong. If we track the route of a disadvantaged child, we see that by age three, they are already four and a half months behind their better-off peers. By age eleven, they are 10 months behind, with less than half of poor children deemed secondary school-ready. By GCSE, they are 18 months behind. If they were not secondary school-ready, they had just a 10% chance of getting five good GCSEs, and by A-level, just 16% of those on free school meals attain at least two A-levels, compared with 39% of all other pupils. The anomaly is the Harris Federation, which is the only large school chain where children on free school meals outperform every other group of children in every other school.

Given those figures, the importance of the early years for a disadvantaged child could not be clearer. Why then do the early years workforce face a skills gap, low pay and poor career progression? Why are a staggering 45% of childcare workers surviving on in-work benefits, and why has the Department for Education not committed to funding the national schools breakfast programme beyond March next year, despite the clear evidence that children achieve an average of two months’ additional academic progress in reading and maths over the course of one year alone when breakfast is provided?

Given the scale of this issue, I am afraid I disagree with those on my Front Bench on abolishing key stage 1 and 2 SATs. How can we ever close the gap if we do not know how many children are behind? There has to be a way of measuring progress and of ensuring standards. I understand the argument that SATs can be stressful, but when a teacher at St Mark’s Primary School in my constituency asked her year 6 class to write down what was stressful in their lives, they wrote about their housing and living conditions, their fear of knife crime and their fear that their scarf-covered mother would be attacked in the street. It is the real-life problems that are going unaddressed by this Conservative Government that worry them, not the tests that they are sitting.

The evidence for the Government is clear. We know that poorer children do better in good schools, but we also know that they are 19 times more likely to go to a bad school. So why would the Government try to encourage all schools to become academies? Labour’s successful academy programme just changed failing schools. Now a staggering 53,000 pupils are attending zombie academies—academies that failed their tests. I recently received a letter from Jonathan Duff, acting director in the office of the regional schools commissioner for the south-east of England, who said that a transfer to another trust is not mandatory when an academy is judged inadequate. Could it be that many failed academies are in such debt that no new sponsor will take them on without a bail-out from the Department for Education? These poor children are the innocent victims of this Government’s policy. When summing up, or in writing, will the Minister say how many failed academies are in debt and how many schools and, more importantly, poor children are being left in limbo simply because the Government are not willing to pay the bill?