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Social Mobility

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 12th February 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford 4:30 pm, 12th February 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered social mobility.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am grateful to be able to raise this subject, which I believe is vital to our country as we develop global Britain and look to a successful and exciting future. Among other roles outside politics, I have worked as both a teacher and a lecturer, so I am particularly passionate about education and social mobility. I have always endeavoured to be involved in them and to highlight issues and concerns about them.

Ultimately, social mobility is about ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to build a good life for themselves, regardless of their family background. In a socially mobile society, every individual should have a fair chance of reaching their full potential. Social mobility is good not only from a moral perspective but from an economic perspective: by ensuring that talent is harvested across the social spectrum, we have the opportunity to boost our country’s productivity and GDP.

Social mobility is one of the key reasons for Britain’s historical success in channelling the talents of all sections of our country for the benefit of the whole nation. Margaret Thatcher, for example, came from very humble origins to become, in my opinion, one of the greatest Prime Ministers we have had. She became Prime Minister because of social mobility.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

My right hon. Friend talks of Margaret Thatcher coming from a humble background. I wonder whether he participated in a booklet produced about 10 years ago of Conservative Members who also came from humble backgrounds. I was, and I think that was a useful tool.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. I, too, am a product of social mobility: education and social mobility have characterised my life. I was born into a family whose origins were in the east end of London, but, through family, education and opportunity, my grandparents and parents were able to develop and get on in life. I am therefore always grateful for the opportunities I had from schoolteachers, from the LSE, where I went to university, and from others who helped me to move up, be involved and have a career.

There are also business leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, actors and singers from humble backgrounds who have had the opportunity to move up the social scale and make something for themselves. However, despite some successes, for far too long the UK has not done as well on the social mobility front as I would have liked. Where someone starts in life should not determine where they finish in life. There is a strong link between adults’ income and those of their parents, and people’s educational attainment is closely linked to that of their parents too. That significantly affects opportunities later in life.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. This is an important issue, which we have discussed recently in Westminster Hall. Does he agree—I think he does—that it is important that being born into a family of sales assistants should not mean that someone can only be a sales assistant, in the same way that being born into a family of doctors does not mean that someone can only secure a position as a doctor? There must be a better structure to ensure that people can determine their own path, based on their hard work and passion rather than their background and birthplace.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

I totally agree—and, of course, the opportunities have to be there for people to do it. That is what this debate is about.

Last month, the World Economic Forum highlighted the problem of poor social mobility around the world. It concluded that where someone is born still pretty much determines the opportunities they get in life. It also published a new global social mobility index, on which Denmark is ranked No. 1. The forum found that just a handful of Governments—specifically those in Scandinavian countries—have succeeded in laying the foundations for greater social mobility and more prosperous futures for their citizens. Rather disappointingly, of the 82 countries in the index, the United Kingdom is ranked 21st, behind Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland.

A lack of social mobility not only has a negative impact on an individual but affects the society in which they live. Now we have left the EU, it is more important than ever that we look seriously at how to improve social mobility further to harness talent across the country. I strongly believe that talent and hard work should determine how far people can go in life, whoever they are and wherever they come from. Opportunity should be available to all sections of our society.

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing forward this important debate. I want to reinforce his point about the economic cost of a lack of social mobility. We agree that that is a tragic waste of human potential and happiness, but let me quote the Sutton Trust, which said:

“A modest increase in the UK’s social mobility (to the average level across western Europe) could be associated with an increase in annual GDP of approximately 2%, equivalent to…£39 billion to the UK economy”.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

I thank my hon. Friend for giving us that informative statistic.

Conservative Governments have made considerable progress since 2010, particularly on education standards and opportunities. Education gives us a better understanding of the world around us, helps us to develop a perspective for looking at life and helps us to build opinions. It is key to social mobility. Some 86% of schools are now rated good or outstanding, compared with only 68% in August 2010. That is a real improvement, and the Government should be congratulated on it. More young people than ever go to our world-class universities, and the highest ever proportion of 16 and 17-year-olds participate in education. We will increase the schools budget by £2.6 billion in 2020-21, £4.8 billion in 2021-22, and £7.1 billion in 2022-23, compared with 2019-20. That will help schools to develop the talent of our young people.

We should all be proud of what the Government have delivered so far and what they continue to deliver. In my borough, Bexley, we are fortunate to have many brilliant schools, both primary and secondary, and a wide range of job opportunities, including apprenticeships. Bexley has been listed as a “social mobility hotspot”, as children from both disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds achieve excellent results at school and benefit from a wide range of opportunities.

However, there is still more to be done, in Bexley and across the country. Clearly, there is still a social mobility postcode lottery in Britain: the chances of someone from a disadvantaged background being successful are still linked to where they live. I am concerned about underachievement. There are areas throughout the UK and in my constituency where many children do not reach their full potential. Young people—particularly young males—in certain areas of the country have become more disengaged from all aspects of society and, regrettably, have fewer aspirations. For some, their teachers, parents and peer groups do not expect them to do well, and there seems to be an acceptance of that. I believe that talent is uniform across all sections of our society, but opportunity is not always so.

I am particularly worried about the underachievement of white working-class boys. My hon. Friend Ben Bradley led a Westminster Hall debate on that subject this morning. I will not repeat what was said then, because he covered the issue very well and the Minister responded, but I share the concerns that were highlighted. We need to give young people from all backgrounds the tools and knowledge they need to succeed; then, the world will be their oyster, and the opportunities to reach for the stars, or whatever, will be there.

The “Elitist Britain” report published by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission laid bare

“the lack of opportunities for so many young people”.

I will not go through the statistics, because I want others to be able to participate in the debate. Unfortunately, however, the elite still dominates, so we have a lot of work to do to give people an opportunity to rise up.

Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare

My right hon. Friend is setting out his case eloquently and beautifully. May I push him a little on his point about some people not being advised to aim high or encouraged to be the best they can? Does he share my fear that in some parts of the country, as he describes, there is some sort of inverse snobbery, and that some people are just told to aim low because the people around them are not willing to transcend the images they have—social images, perhaps—of the people who should and could aim high?

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

That is a good point, and that is regrettable in 21st century Britain.

The “Elitist Britain” report made a number of policy recommendations, but I want to highlight two of them:

“Recruitment practices should be open and transparent” and

“Leading social mobility employers should take a sector leadership role and share best practice.”

In the previous Parliament and the one before that, I was a strong supporter of the social mobility pledge, championed by the former Member for Putney, Justine Greening. The pledge is made up of three interlinking commitments. The first is partnering directly with schools or colleges to provide coaching through quality careers advice, enrichment experience and/or mentoring to people from disadvantaged backgrounds or circumstances. The second is access, providing structured work experience and/or apprenticeship opportunities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Thirdly, there is recruitment, adopting open employee recruitment practices that promote a level playing field for people from disadvantaged backgrounds or circumstances, such as name-blind recruitment and contextual recruitment. The initiative is backed by hundreds of businesses, because they understand that improving social mobility is good for them as well as for individuals and communities.

The pledge was set up to tackle the social mobility problem, share best practice and ideas and to boost social mobility. It covers more than 3 million employees and 1 million students across the UK. Partners include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Sainsbury’s, BP, the AA, various universities, and some of my local housing associations. That is important and welcome.

I also want to stress the important role that further education colleges can play in improving social mobility as well as helping to solve our country’s skills shortage. Further education has always had close links with local employers, so it is in a unique position to fill their skills gaps, but that needs businesses, local authorities, schools and colleges to work together.

Last week, I visited the Bexley campus of London South East Colleges, which is an excellent college in our area that understands the vital importance of providing good training and education and promoting social mobility and opportunity. I discussed finance, and I do believe that our further education colleges are underfunded. I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Education and indeed my hon. Friend the Minister will take action to fund colleges better. It would be a good investment in our nation as well as for individuals, and it would help global Britain succeed.

As well as speaking with staff and students, I was privileged to meet some inspirational apprentices studying on apprenticeship schemes. Apprenticeships are an engine of social mobility, particularly as they create routes into stable, highly skilled and well-paid jobs. It is important to note that learners from deprived backgrounds may need to be in employment while learning, rather than going on to colleges. A report by Universities UK called “The Financial Concerns of Students” found that living costs to be a more significant concern than the level of tuition fees for undergraduates and that the financial aspects of going to university are more important to those from under-represented and lower socioeconomic groups. Nearly all the apprentices I spoke to there and across Bexley—a very good local authority in promoting apprenticeships—see a tremendous beneficial impact from apprenticeships on their career. The majority were satisfied in their job and felt they were better at doing their job since starting their apprenticeship.

Worryingly, though, the report found—this was repeated at my meetings—that a majority of apprentices said their secondary schoolteachers had not discussed apprenticeships as an option with them. Similarly, a majority of teachers said they would rarely or never advise their high-performing students to choose an apprenticeship over university. That overall experience of the apprentices I talked to is rather disappointing. They felt, and I agree, that we need a more innovative and proactive approach to raise awareness and break down those barriers among staff and pupils in schools.

There is a lot to be done. I know the Government are committed to creating a country where everyone has the same chances to go as far as their talents allow. I am a strong supporter of the Prime Minister’s agenda of opportunities for all across our country. We must now ensure that people are encouraged from a young age to engage with education and training and understand the long-term benefits. Without action—the Government must be involved, as must all the others I have mentioned—social and economic divisions in the UK could widen, meaning our country and our workforce will not be geared up to ensure that global Britain is the success that our PM wants and we all strongly believe we can achieve. This is an important issue and, at this time in our history, social mobility should be top of our agenda.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Order. It might be useful for the House to know that I have four Back Benchers wanting to catch my eye and we will begin the winding-up speeches at 5.10 pm.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston 4:45 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate Sir David Evennett on his excellent introduction. I begin by declaring that I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility. This is an issue I feel passionately about, and I am afraid that each time I speak on it I see little sign of progress. We need an overarching cross-departmental Government strategy, which is sadly lacking at the moment.

I have long held the view that many of the frustrations and factors that led to the Brexit vote are connected to declining social mobility. That was reinforced by findings published a few weeks ago by the Social Mobility Commission, whose survey showed that 78% of people in London thought they had good opportunities to progress, whereas only 31% of people in the north-east did. Those figures ought to make us all sit up and take notice, because they show just how disconnected we are from voters and how little confidence the public have in our being able to address their concerns.

A number of recent reports tell us about the scale of challenge we face. One is from the Sutton Trust and even its title, “Elites in the UK: Pulling Away?”, pulls no punches. It said that one in five men in professional occupations born between 1955 and 1961 became socially mobile, but the figure for those born between 1975 and 1981 was only one in eight. In other words, we are a country where opportunity is declining. The pull of London was prominent, with the report finding that two thirds of the most socially mobile people built their careers close to home, rather than by moving away, but people in that group were more likely to come from London. Of course, London is the political, economic and cultural centre of this country, and it has much to offer, but that report and others show that it is over-dominant to the detriment of other places. It is no wonder that three and a half years ago so many people sent us a message in the ballot box that they wanted something fundamentally different in the way the country works.

As the right hon. Member said in his introduction, there is an international comparison of social mobility from the World Economic Forum, which ranks the UK 21st in the world. Unfortunately, as was mentioned, the majority of countries above us are our western European neighbours. We see that the top performers combine

“access, quality and equity in education, while also providing work opportunities and good working conditions, alongside quality social protection and inclusive institutions”.

I do not think we can begin to understand the scale of the problem until we see words like that, which show how social mobility is about far more than just education.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

It is very much more than education. There is also a need to have education at an early stage. The schools in my constituency, and probably in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, try to focus on career opportunities, and it is important that teachers involved in careers give the full picture of opportunities and what may need to be done. Pupils may see some other options for work and they need to know that opportunities are there.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I thank the hon. Member. We have talked many times about the need to raise levels of aspiration. One of the sad things we have seen in recent times is how quality careers advice has slowly drained out of the education system. It is not just about 14 and 15-year-olds; it is about getting five and six-year-olds to think about what they can achieve. The evidence shows that the countries that tend to be more socially mobile are those where the gap between the bottom and the top is smaller, demonstrating that social mobility and inequality are closely linked. In 2019, it is a scandal that where you were born and who you are born to are still the biggest influences on your prospects. If we are ever going to move forward as a nation, everyone should have the same opportunity to achieve their potential. I think everyone in the room agrees with that.

When he resigned as the chair of the Social Mobility Commission, Alan Milburn said he was doing so because the Government were

“unable to devote the necessary energy and focus to the social mobility agenda.”

When he gave evidence to the Education Committee, he said:

“After the change of Prime Minister, following the European referendum, that whole conversation frankly went into the void. There was no conversation. There was no response.”

Those are damning word that were barely met with a shrug.

The new chair—not so new, now—Dame Martina Milburn is bringing real focus and drive to the commission which only yesterday produced a fine set of recommendations for the workplace, including internships being openly advertised— something that the all-party group on social mobility has called for for a long time. It recognises, as we do, that informal networks, which do much to stifle social mobility, creep into recruitment, even at the internship stage, for which money is a vital in order to make the first step through the door. While we are on that subject, why do we still allow internships to be unpaid? That is an invitation for exploitation.

We rightly focus on education, but addressing inequalities beyond the education system, including factors such as access to work, tax, welfare, housing, transport and health, is vital. We need to look at the world of work, particularly. For how much longer will the most likely experience for young people be casual work, low pay and insecurity in the workplace?

The Government need to stop treating social mobility as a niche issue that is the role of just one Minister. They need to make it a mission across all Government departments, with a focused and consistent approach that transcends the day-to-day world of politics and reshuffles. That is an issue to which I hope the commission can add value.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said, particularly about the importance of each Government Department taking this issue seriously. He may recall that under the coalition Government there was a Cabinet sub-committee specifically on social mobility, which entrusted and tasked a Minister from each Department to take forward initiatives in their Department. Does he agree that that is something we can recommend for the Minister to take away and feed back, particularly in advance of events that are likely to occur tomorrow?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I hope the Minister stays in post and is able to take back today’s messages. Government focus has not been where it should be, but in the early part of the last decade we saw a real drive, with the introduction of the Commission on Social Mobility, which has unfortunately now stagnated. We need much greater accountability and transparency across Government in this area. It seems incredible that there is no automatic impact assessment about the effect that new legislation will have on social mobility.

Our central aim and mission should be to create a society where everyone has the same opportunities in life, regardless of their background. We know we have a long way to go. As long as three quarters of senior judges, half the top 100 news journalists and two thirds of British Oscar winners are privately educated, we will not have a fair society. The kids from the council estates will still get the message that those jobs are not for people like them.

The economic imperative speaks for itself, but the moral urgency of the task is clear. The commissioners are making the case, as am I, and many other Members. The question now is are the Government listening? What happens if the commission’s many worthy recommendations are not acted on? How much longer will we expect things to stagnate? Will anyone in Government take personal responsibility to improve social mobility? It is not an easy nut to crack and it will take many years to see real improvements, but someone senior in Government, with authority and resources, is needed to build a cross-departmental approach that is clearly lacking at the moment.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 4:53 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett for introducing this important debate.

In my intervention, I mentioned a booklet that was produced during my early years as a new Member and in which I appeared. Its purpose was to try to attack the caricatures that were made of Members on this side and to show that they, too, had participated in social mobility in their own lives. I am a good example of that, having come from a poor family and worked my way through education, at school and three times at university. It is not that I got it wrong the first time, and had to go back and do it again; I can explain that on another occasion. It is important to show that Members on this side have personal experience of social mobility.

My hon. Friend Jack Lopresti and Jim Shannon will have heard what I am going to say, in a debate yesterday about the apprenticeship levy. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford said about apprenticeships; I agree with him. My point yesterday was that I do not think the levy has helped to achieve social mobility. The figures from 2015-16 show that the deprived 20% accounted for around 21.9% of level 4 apprenticeships and above. That figure has now dropped to 16.4%, so there is a long way to go. We need to build into the apprenticeship levy—into apprenticeships generally—the idea that they are not an excuse for trying to fob off other sorts of training, particularly for graduates, who may feel they are able to do something better.

Education played a major part in my own experience. Universities have changed enormously over the past few years. The percentage of people who received free school meals who are going to university now is much larger than it was even five years ago. That is very welcome. Combined with the emphasis on apprenticeships, that shows that there are good opportunities for young people to engage in aspirational activities, which will help them to make the most of their lives in the future. Society today is much more dynamic than it was even in the 1990s. There are good examples of that in the Chamber. However, I fully accept that the work has not yet finished and there is still much to be done to take the issue forward.

As Justin Madders rightly pointed out, education is not the only factor. Housing plays a major part in increasing social mobility. When people come to me and say, “I don’t want any more houses built in my area”, I am naturally very caustic with them, because that goes against everything that I believe in terms of social mobility. My hon. Friend David Johnston is laughing because there is a dispute in Oxfordshire at the moment over the building of houses, of which he is fully aware. Even social housing plays a major part in being able to provide people with the experience we want them to have, in order to take social mobility forward.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford for introducing the debate. It is an excellent subject for debate. As he has already picked out, and as I did in the apprenticeship levy debate yesterday, the subject has been something of a theme this week. Having a theme is good for this place because we can bring in different aspects of the subject as we go along.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Labour, Barnsley East 4:58 pm, 12th February 2020

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to follow John Howell. I agree with his comments about the apprenticeship levy, which he made in the debates yesterday and today. I congratulate Sir David Evennett on securing this important debate.

Social mobility is about young people’s chances in life. It is about creating a society where kids can aspire to anything, and about giving them the tools and resources they need to achieve their dreams. I will speak about the current gap between aspiration and opportunity that exists in areas such as mine, and advocate for long-term, sustained investment in our schools and industry, so that children and young people from places, such as Barnsley, have as much chance to succeed as those elsewhere.

Former coalfield communities, such as Barnsley, have been left to weather the devastating impact of the loss of the mining industry and decades of deindustrialisation by themselves. Our economy has lagged behind that of the rest of the UK, affecting how many and what kinds of jobs are available. Older industrial towns in coal-mining areas tend to have fewer higher paying jobs, which obviously has a knock-on effect on the amount of schools and, in particular, on transport infrastructure. A stark geographical divide exists in this country. A child from Cudworth in my constituency is five times less likely to go to university than one from Chelsea. In Barnsley, only 9% of kids who receive free school meals go to university, compared with the national average of 26%.

Accessible vocational education is an important part of overcoming disadvantage, giving young people the tools and employment experiences to get on in life. Right now, in my constituency, there is not one sixth-form college. That is not to take away from the fantastic work of Barnsley college, which is not too far away—it is a fantastic institution and provides fantastic education—but obviously the inability to stay on in a school setting has an impact on encouraging young people to do A-levels.

It is not just about A-levels, but about vocational education; there has been more than one debate on that in this place this week, and I agree that it is incredibly important. But our communities have been left behind and I do not believe that that should or must be the case. This should not be the first generation that is worse off than the one before. Social mobility can be fostered so that children from all backgrounds and areas can reach their potential.

A fantastic example of encouraging that is the world-class Barnsley Youth Choir, which provides choral training, regardless of financial or social background. The choir was set up 10 years ago from absolutely nothing, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the fantastic Mathew Wright, who set it up. Now we have hundreds of kids of all ages from across Barnsley coming together, and the choir is ranked fifth in the world. They go all over the world performing. That is a fantastic example of an opportunity that gives young people the ability to express themselves, to sing, to show off their talents and to see more of the world. It is a reflection of the community spirit of Barnsley, and it is particularly inspirational.

Volunteer-run programmes such as the Barnsley Youth Choir show the commitment of parents, teachers and volunteers to giving young people the best start in life. Last week I met the head of Netherwood Academy, one of the schools in my constituency, to discuss its efforts to increase the aspirations of young women. They want successful women from different industries to go and meet young girls and to speak about their careers and ambitions. As a former teacher, that is a project that I welcome, and I hope to welcome them here to the House of Commons.

Sadly, it is not just about having aspirations for more, but about having the opportunity to act on those aspirations. Social mobility should not be a postcode lottery.

The Government can and should support working-class communities such as Barnsley by investing in its people, the local economies and the manufacturing industry, so that people are not stuck in low-paid, insecure jobs with no prospect of development, with the only alternative being to leave their local areas.

We need to invest in the skills of our workforce, which will aid recruitment and increase productivity. We need to invest in education and qualifications to enable people in Barnsley to pursue jobs that are higher paid and more secure and, crucially, we need to fund transport projects to connect our towns and communities across the UK. I believe the Government need to take urgent action if young people from my community are to be given the best start in life.

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott Conservative, Sevenoaks 5:03 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. It is also a pleasure to follow Stephanie Peacock; I particularly agreed with her remarks about university and encouraging participation. I thank my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett for allowing us to debate this today.

Given the time, I will talk about one specific thing: the importance of going to a good university in driving social mobility, and what more we can do to encourage that. I should declare an interest at the outset; I am a Sutton Trust girl and am now an ambassador for the trust. It has been mentioned a number of times, which has been a pleasure to hear.

We know that university places correlate with success; that has been shown again and again, in study after study. The Browne review showed that people are more likely to be employed, with higher wages and greater job satisfaction, if they go to university, but it is the top universities that confer particular benefit. We know that many of our top employers only recruit from a certain select number of universities. On average, they target the top 19 of our 115 universities, so it is not only university attendance that we need to focus on, but which universities our deprived kids are going to.

That has been slightly overlooked in the debate we have been having over time about university attendance, which has been more about the quantity of people going through university, rather than the quality of the education that they get and what impact that has on their educational outcomes. We have found that not enough children from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to those good universities. There have been huge upticks in the numbers over time, which is of course to be welcomed; the Government have done a huge amount to encourage that, and the Office for Students now has a plan in place for each university to encourage it further. However, the most advantaged 20% are still seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities than the most disadvantaged 40%—a statistic that we urgently need to address.

Over time, we have put a lot of emphasis on universities. That is obviously right, and there is a place for that, but, as someone who came from a comprehensive school and was lucky enough to get into Oxford with the help of the Sutton Trust, I know how difficult it is to make that transition from a comprehensive education that was good, but not amazing, to university, and the extra help that was needed once I got there. We can do more at school level to help with that transition and to raise aspiration for our kids as they are going through school.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of raising aspiration, but it is not just about raising aspiration a year or 18 months before the transition to university. It is about raising aspiration towards the end of primary school and at the very beginning of secondary school. There is good evidence that if that takes place, and is done effectively, we hugely increase social mobility and the aspiration of young people and their ability to attend good universities.

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott Conservative, Sevenoaks

My hon. Friend is right. We cannot just do this at sixth form: we need to focus on it throughout a child’s school career.

Successive Governments have tried to fix careers advice, and none has been effective in doing so. Careers advice varies hugely throughout the country and, despite the best efforts of successive Governments, evidence shows that it is not really getting much better. In our levelling-up agenda as a Government, we really need to focus specifically on that.

We also need to look at subject choice. The subject choices that children from more deprived backgrounds make tend to be less academic and I do not think they always realise how much that will drive future choices. There were people at my school who did A-levels, but did not study all the sciences, and then realised that that restricted their ability to study medicine at university. They did not know that beforehand. It is crucial that we look at how schools guide subject choices and consider what different career paths require at an earlier stage.

We come to the fundamental question of the quality of education. The education reforms that the coalition put through and that have been pushed by this Government have been critical in driving up standards in schools. We need to focus on the fact that children need to be able to read and write when they leave school; everything else that we talk about—music education, for example—is all well and good, but we must have those fundamental basics. The reforms that have been made to GCSEs and A-levels are critical and I believe will, over time, make a difference in social mobility terms.

We cannot lose sight of that. We cannot allow our Ofsted regulators to inspect everything under the sun, rather than examine quality of education. It has become a Christmas tree over time, which has diluted the focus on the quality of education in schools. We cannot allow that to happen. If we are to really succeed in changing social mobility, we need laser-like focus on quality in schools, which I know we will have. The increased funding will help with that.

In summary, we must get more disadvantaged kids into good universities. We need to highlight opportunities and instil aspiration in them throughout their time in schools.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities) 5:09 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate Sir David Evennett. Is it not good that another further education lecturer is responding for the Scottish National party? We both know the importance of further education and how it helps to increase social mobility.

The latest state of the nation report says that

“social mobility has stagnated over the last four years at virtually all stages from birth to work”, which is an utterly shocking indictment of the UK Government. It highlights the way in which inequality is entrenched in Britain, with someone born privileged likely to remain privileged, while someone born disadvantaged may have to overcome barriers to improve their and their children’s social mobility. Urgent action needs to be taken to close the privilege gap. The report also praised the Scottish Government for making Scotland

“more socially mobile, as a person’s occupation is now less determined by the occupation of one’s parents”, and for

“giving consideration to improving social mobility by introducing a duty on public bodies to reduce socio-economic disadvantage”, which we do not have in the rest of the UK.

I, too, am socially mobile. My dad was a corporation milkman and my mother was a cleaner. I was the first in my whole family to go to university, in 1967. A lot of what happened to me was because of my parents’ belief in education and the fact that their children should get the chances that they did not. However, it was also because they worked hard, and got the rewards of working hard, in a way that families nowadays do not. We hear so much about work being the best way out of poverty. That is not entirely true—not for someone in the gig economy on what is not, in fact, a living wage. Most people on benefits are in working families, and there are children in poverty across the United Kingdom in families in which both parents work. This scandal should not escape us, and we should do everything we can to end it. The Scottish Government are working to help Scottish families—the Scottish child payment is about to come on board—but only 16% of social security is devolved to Scotland, so they cannot do everything that they would like. Children are the start; and if we give children across the UK the best possible start, social mobility should follow.

Education has been mentioned. As I said, I was educated and became socially mobile. I was economically inactive for a number of years—I had three children—but was able to go back into the workforce at a far higher level. If we educate women especially, we educate generations after them. That is an absolute fact, and I stand here as proof of it. The SNP Government have invested record amounts in schools, to close the poverty-related attainment gap. Hon. Members should not listen to everything said against education in Scotland. It is improving. I know from my experience in further education that giving money helps, but it is also about the commitment of the people who work in education.

The Scottish Government have a uniform fund, enabling children to go to school and be like their peers. A child who goes to school and is like their peers will learn better, learn more and will feel able to progress. The Scottish Government have also expanded the education maintenance allowance in Scotland, but it has been scrapped here. We have to ask why, given that it is socially advantageous to give children from poorer backgrounds money to allow them to stay at school and increase their educational abilities.

I absolutely agree with Laura Trott. Yes, going to a good university is really important, which is why places like St Andrews, one of the leading UK universities, actively encourages children, and is actively encouraged by the Scottish Government—

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but because we are very close to time, Opposition spokespeople should only have five minutes. You have exceeded that, so I am sure that you are about to bring your speech to a close.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities)

I was indeed. Will the Minister tell us whether her Government will follow the Scottish Government and commit to a socioeconomic duty in England and Wales, and whether they will look at steps that the Scottish Government have already taken to increase social mobility?

Photo of Mike Kane Mike Kane Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 5:14 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I welcome the Minister to her new role. I know from my time on the Front Bench that she takes a keen interest in education. I congratulate Sir David Evennett on securing the debate. He has a long-standing interest in this matter and has raised it on the Floor of the House on numerous occasions. I just hope that his colleagues at the top of the party will continue to listen. He is right that it is a moral argument, which was made crystal clear in his comments.

I am a First Generation ambassador for Manchester Metropolitan University and have trained numerous working-class young people at A-level about going to university for the first time. Several of them will visit Parliament in the next few weeks. We raise money from the private sector to help the programme, and I am proud of the work that I do as a constituency MP on this matter.

My hon. Friend Justin Madders mentioned social mobility. I have to say that I disagree with his saying that London is the economic and cultural capital of Great Britain. As a Manchester United fan, he should know better. However, it was an excellent speech. He said that opportunity has gone backwards and social mobility is going backwards. I thank him for his work in Parliament on this the subject.

John Howell, as ever in education debates in Westminster Hall, made really good points about apprenticeships and how important they are to working-class communities getting on. I visited Airbus in Broughton recently and saw working-class young men and women obtaining level 4 and 5-equivalent degrees on the shop floor and coming out with no debt whatsoever. He also spoke about social housing, which was key for me. I had a secure tenancy growing up, even though I grew up in a council flat on a council estate in Manchester. How many young people nowadays get that?

What my hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock said about music resonated with me. She has one of the best choirs in Europe in her constituency. Music, arts and culture are a great way to raise aspiration. She is a fantastic representative of a coal-mining community, and she said that those communities need sustained and long-term investment. I thank Laura Trott for her ambassadorship for the Sutton Trust. She is right: we need more working-class kids going to Russell Group universities. I have some appalling statistics of free-school-meal kids who cannot really get into my fantastic local Russell Group university. The numbers are so few. We have to work harder.

Marion Fellows clearly said that the education of women is key to raising social mobility. However, with austerity, the economics we have had and the lack of social justice, it is no wonder that it is stalling. It is worth noting that there was no explicit reference to social mobility in the Queen’s Speech. It has stagnated. That is not my view; that was the view of the Social Mobility Commission, which is part-sponsored by the Government. Members may recall that the board of the Commission resigned en masse in 2017 because it thought that the Government were not taking this seriously enough.

A 2017 Social Mobility Commission report stated:

“There is a fracture line running deep through our labour and housing markets and our education system.”

In other words: our society is divided and unequal. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston pointed out, the then social mobility commissioner stated that appointments to key commission roles were left vacant for years, and went on to say in an interview in The Sunday Times that the Government had shown

“indecision, dysfunctionality and a lack of leadership”.

It took more than six months for the Government to appoint a new commission, so there was no doubt at that point that the Government were not prioritising the issue. However, the new commission revealed that more than half a million more children were living in poverty than in 2012. Furthermore, levels of social mobility remained “virtually stagnant” since 2014—almost five wasted years.

I am extremely proud of my country, but the report by the United Nations special rapporteur that was published last year made me feel ashamed. The report described how our social safety net had been badly damaged by drastic cuts in Whitehall, how the glue that held British society was coming unstuck, deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh, uncaring ethos.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the shadow Minister, as this is an important debate, but we have limited time. He is over his five minutes.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 5:20 pm, 12th February 2020

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett on securing this important debate on social mobility, the issue which inspired me to enter politics—to enable others to get on. Social mobility is a top priority for this Government and a challenge that requires action across the whole of society and Government. My right hon. Friend is right that the Government must play a key role in improving opportunities across our country.

My right hon. Friend highlighted the important role of the Social Mobility Commission. I want to reassure hon. Members that I regularly meet the chair of the commission to discuss where we can effectively work closely together on our shared agenda. I vehemently believe that education is the key to expanding opportunities and everybody has the right to a good education. As my right hon. Friend said, while education has the power to grow skills and knowledge, it is also about fostering self-belief and expanding horizons. It really is the key to social mobility.

Improving this country’s education system starts in the early years. Giving all young people the best start in life is a top priority for this Government. We are committed to improving access to early education and supporting parents to improve their child’s outcome. Hungry Little Minds is a three-year campaign to encourage parents to chat to their children, play with them and read to them, and to help them be ready for school and life. The other week I visited the Wirral, where I saw how different sectors of the community—businesses and charities—have got involved in that campaign.

Schools are essential ladders of opportunity, as my right hon. Friend noted when he quoted the statistics showing the success of the current reforms. We have focused our attention on raising standards, because all children, wherever they live, deserve high standards of education, which are the best way to allow young people to make the most of their potential. My right hon. Friend will know that this has done much to improve the academic improvement and wider educational outcomes of pupils from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

We provide additional funding through the pupil premium. Since 2011, we have distributed over £17 billion in pupil premium funding. Through the groundbreaking work of the Education Endowment Foundation, schools can now freely access a growing body of high-quality evidence on what really works, so they can make informed decisions about how best to spend that money effectively. We will continue to support all groups that are held back and ensure that schools can address the needs of each individual pupil. That is why we have injected so much more money into our education system recently.

My right hon. Friend mentioned social mobility hotspots. While we are working to improve the life chances of disadvantaged pupils everywhere, we recognise that some parts of the country face particularly significant challenges. We have used the Social Mobility Commission’s 2016 social mobility index and the data from the Department for Education on school capacity and performance to select 12 areas for targeted initiatives. Those 12 opportunity areas are a mix of coastal, urban and rural areas across the country. The commission’s report on the state of the nation, which has been referenced several times, recognised the important work of opportunity areas for levelling up society, especially in deprived parts of the country. We were, therefore, delighted to announce a one-year £18 million extension to the programme last October, bringing the total funds to £90 million. Additionally, we are working with leaders from education, local government and business, and we are investing up to £24 million through Opportunity North East.

My right hon. Friend made an important point about the need of young people to access a range of activities, inside and outside the classroom. In 2017-19, we invested £22 million in an essential life skills programme to help engage disadvantaged young children in extracurricular activities, to develop confidence in leadership and support life skills critical to raising their aspirations. Last year, we published guidance to help schools to improve character education and the personal development of their pupils.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

Several hon. Members mentioned the World Economic Forum rankings. Do the Government want to set a target to improve our position in those rankings, and if so, over what time period?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We have not yet set a target. I think the aspiration should be that the sky is the limit. This is an extremely important debate that, unfortunately, we did not have enough time for today. It is the key priority of this Government to level up society across the country and ensure that every child and young person has the opportunities they deserve.

Going back to the point I was dealing with on, I wanted to say that it linked with the points made by Stephanie Peacock, who talked about the role of the voluntary sector in levelling up society. Further education is a great driver of social mobility, and we are reviewing qualifications to ensure that our reforms in that sector help all students. We will provide £3 million in extra funding to pupil premium plus, on top of the additional investment we have made in the further education sector.

I agree with my hon. Friend John Howell that high-quality apprenticeships are essential to social mobility. That is something that we all recognise, and something that we debated in this Chamber yesterday. We want to ensure that people from all backgrounds can access the benefits of an apprenticeship, and our Opportunities Through Apprenticeships project was specifically targeted at helping disadvantaged young people. That is something that I am looking at, to ensure it is an even playing field.

Higher education has been referenced, particularly by my hon. Friend Laura Trott. I agree with her, but I stress that higher education is not the only route for social mobility. However, our reforms, including the establishment of the Office for Students, open access to higher education. They are about bringing in greater competition and choice and promoting higher-quality education for all. I take her point about it depending on the type of institution that young people get into, and that is something we have specifically been targeting over recent years. The figures have demonstrated success: in 2019, 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds were 62% more likely to enter full-time higher education.

Finally, turning to the world of work, I share the concern of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford that privately educated individuals continue to be over-represented in professional occupations. That is something we have tried to target through our career education reforms. We have made great strides in recent years to improve careers advice for young people based on the Gatsby benchmarks. Through the Careers & Enterprise Company, we have established 40 career hubs. The latest state of the nation report concluded that schools and colleges have improved in every aspect of their career provision, with some of the most disadvantaged communities among the highest performers.

In conclusion, and to allow my right hon. Friend a moment to sum up, I thank him for calling this important and crucial debate, which has rightly ranged across the actions that we are taking to spread opportunities at all stages of a young person’s life. The Government and I are committed to providing all young people with the tools that they need to reach their full potential and access the opportunities that they deserve.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford 5:28 pm, 12th February 2020

I thank the Minister for her comments and for the information she has given us, and I also thank everybody who has participated in today’s debate, which is vitally important. We need to work together across parties to ensure that we achieve what we all want, which is to make sure that the deprived areas have the best opportunities for young people and to create aspiration and opportunities for people to maximise their life chances. We need to do that in many and varied ways.

We have had a very good debate this afternoon on how we view social mobility, how we think about it and how we should go forward. Members from all parts of the House have raised many issues, and I thank them for giving us more food for thought. There should be more opportunities to discuss the issue, and it should be a top priority. I welcome the Minister saying that the Government have social mobility as a top priority. We should all be working to ensure that all young people have real opportunities to make the most of their lives and the most of the opportunities that we can give them. Through that, they can succeed and then our country and our communities can succeed. By working together, they will have a fulfilled life and really achieve their maximum potential.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered social mobility.

Sitting adjourned.