Inequality and Social Mobility

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:57 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Nadhim Zahawi Nadhim Zahawi The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 6:57 pm, 12th June 2019

I will try to take some interventions at the end. I want to get through my remarks and to address some of the questions asked of me.

In 2014, we extended benefits-related free meals to cover further education—not something that the Labour party had contemplated—and introduced universal infant free school meals, benefiting a further 1.5 million infant pupils. In 2018, we introduced new eligibility under universal credit, and we estimate that by 2022 more children will benefit from free school meals than under the previous benefits system. Such efforts are targeted at the root causes of poverty and disadvantage.

Improving this country’s education system starts in the early years—Martina Milburn focused on that in her report. We have already made progress in closing the gap that emerges between disadvantaged children and their peers: 71.5% of children achieved a “good level of development” in 2018, up from 51.7% in 2013. Despite that very encouraging progress, far too many children still start school behind their peers, in particular in language development, which a number of colleagues mentioned. We have set out an important ambition to halve, by 2028, the proportion of children finishing their reception year without the communication and reading skills that they need.

To tackle that, this year alone the Government will spend about £3.5 billion—yes, Mr Deputy Speaker, you heard me right—on early education entitlements, which is more than any previous Government have spent. Our early years social mobility programme, backed by more than £100 million of investment, includes: a professional development programme for early years practitioners, who will shape those little ones to make the most of their lives as they become adults; and work with Public Health England to train 1,000 health visitors to identify speech, language and communication in families who need that additional help. We will soon launch a home learning environment campaign, because what happens in the home in the earliest years has a huge impact, and there are many opportunities to help parents to support their children to learn—to have the confidence to help their children to learn better and faster. I look forward to working with hon. Members across this House to ensure that we make the most of the very significant potential of that campaign to help disadvantaged children.

This Government have focused on raising school standards because we know that what happens in our classrooms is critical to reducing inequality. There is nothing moral or decent about crashing an economy and leaving the most vulnerable people behind. That is why we are targeting extra support at the areas of greatest challenge and least opportunity in order to raise standards and attract great teachers to our primary and secondary schools. This has helped to ensure that, as of December of last year, there are 1.9 million more children in good and outstanding schools compared with when we came into office in 2010, representing 85% of children, compared with just 66% in 2010. That is partly down to our reforms.

I am pleased to say that this Government have also made significant progress in closing the opportunity gap with regard to education. The difference in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has fallen across all stages of education. Commenting on the changes we have made to the system, including the pupil premium, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has been mentioned a number of times today, said:

“A system that was substantially skewed…towards the better off is now, if anything, skewed towards the least well off.”

It also said:

“Reforms since 2010 are likely to have increased total funding in favour of pupils from poorer backgrounds.”

Our efforts do not stop there, when school comes to an end. To tackle inequality, everyone must have the right level of ongoing support to help them on a path to a skilled job, be it via university or a more practical, technical path. That is why widening access in higher education to ensure that an academic route is open to all is a priority for this Government, as shown in the recent report by Philip Augar.