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Any successful economic strategy that can take advantage of the global economy of the future must be built on the foundation of a highly skilled work force. We are currently in very difficult economic times, but this is not the time to cut back. We need to invest, as it is crucial that we are ready for the economic upturn when it
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comes and as it happens. It is estimated that the global economy will need 1 billion extra skilled jobs in the next 20 years, and the figure for the United Kingdom is probably about 6.8 million to 7 million.

To reap the benefits, we will need action and investment at every stage of a child’s life. I know that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) does not entirely accept that and has concerns about early-years investment and Sure Start. The evidence shows, however, that we have to invest in those early years; otherwise, we will not reap the benefits as those children pass through the education system.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) may have let the cat out of the bag this week when he talked about proposals for 10 per cent. funding cuts across the board—apart from in one or two areas. If the Opposition’s proposals are to cut post-16 Train to Gain, that will reduce social mobility, increase social inequalities and fail this country’s economy. The progress being made by the Government will lead to everyone being able to fulfil their potential. If one person does not fulfil their potential and aspirations, or fails to have them in the first place, that is a waste for them as an individual, for the community, for society as a whole, and, crucially, for the economy and future of this country. We are committed to stopping the squandering of those skills, and to ensuring that the brightest and the best from every background, family income level and part of the country will have the chance to fulfil their potential.

Mr. Mark Field: Does the hon. Lady not feel that the emphasis—or, it might be argued, over-emphasis—on aspirations and access to the professions can often obscure a real concern? She is right that there will be a need for 1 billion more skilled people in the global economy in the decades ahead. The real issue, therefore, is that there needs to be more investment in further education and lifelong learning, not simply in access to the professions, which will always be elitist in the respect that only about 15 or 20 per cent. of people will be able to aspire to join them. We should focus on the jobs that will be required in future through better further education and a commitment to lifelong learning.

Angela E. Smith: I am puzzled by the hon. Gentleman’s point, although I accept that he means it well, in that the two things seem complementary. The argument we are putting forward today—this is why we are so keen to see the panel’s recommendations—is that through every life cycle of someone’s education and skills training, the support and training needs to be in place. Having support and fairer access to professions is crucial, but part and parcel of that is improving access to further and higher education. The two are complementary; they are not exclusive or separate in any way.

In conclusion, I pay tribute again to the work undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington and his panel. He has taken on a huge task, because this issue affects the future not only of individuals but of the whole economy of this country. He will want to take on board the views of this House, and we are eager to see his recommendations, so that they can be taken on board in order to make the difference that society and this country needs.

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2.30 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): I welcome both the Minister to her new responsibilities, which include this important subject of social mobility, and this debate. I do not know whether she planned to have a debate on this subject within two days of becoming the Minister responsible for it, but it is welcome that she is at the Dispatch Box to speak on it. The right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) is also in the Chamber, and he is leading the independent review. The work that has been produced, both originally by the Cabinet Office’s strategy unit—that was on social mobility as a whole—and more recently by the panel on fair access to the professions, is excellent. The amount of empirical evidence assembled in those reports is fantastic, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is the right man to push forward this agenda. We read in the papers that he got his party’s Chief Whip to apologise for having suggested that he was a rebel plotting the downfall of the Prime Minister last week; we note that nobody else has had such a statement from the Chief Whip. It is good to see the right hon. Gentleman in the Chamber to debate this important subject.

Our starting point is the statistics that have led to an extraordinarily lively academic debate about the decline in social mobility between children born in 1958 and those born in 1970. Although the evidence since 1970 is debated, it seems clear to me that, despite one or two claims to the contrary, social mobility has been flatlining since 1970. The summary of the November 2008 document got it about right when it stated:

Something I welcomed in the Minister’s statement was that she did not try to argue that social mobility was improving again; it might be, but we do not have the evidence for that. One of the leading experts, Paul Gregg, who did work on children who were born in 1990 and took their GCSEs 15 years later, said that there was not enough evidence to claim with any confidence that there had been an improvement. Although we hope things are getting better, we do not have the evidence to say that at the moment.

The panel’s reports are fascinating. The Minister rather dangerously strayed into the territory of access to different professions. As I do not believe that there are any journalists sitting up there in the Press Gallery, let us be clear about what the figures show. The table on page 2, which shows the backgrounds of professionals born in 1958 compared with those of professionals born in 1970—again, those two longitudinal studies are used—is about the most fascinating one in the report. The table measures how much more affluent their families were in comparison with the average family income.

In some professions—teaching, for example—there has been, if anything, a tiny improvement. For those joining other professions, the family backgrounds of those born in 1970 were much more relatively affluent than the backgrounds of those born in 1958. The biggest single change was found to have taken place in journalism: journalists born in 1958 were seen to have come from backgrounds where the family income was roughly the same as the average, whereas for those born in 1970 a massive gap had opened up. I am looking forward to the Minister coming to the Chamber when we have the panel’s report in mid-July and telling us what she is
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going to do about access to journalism. As she takes on the journalists’ profession, we will be watching sympathetically from a distance.

I was also struck by the material on page 45, which again shows the rise of requirements for graduate entry—another powerful piece of evidence from this very useful report. We look forward to the final report that the Minister will receive from the right hon. Member for Darlington.

We have done some research of our own on social mobility, including an analysis of evidence from the Office for National Statistics about the backgrounds of people who go to university. We did a micro-analysis, based on the neighbourhoods that those people came from, and we concluded that the figures convey a stark message. Despite hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on widening participation, the figures still show that in the richest, most affluent areas of the country six in 10 young people go to university, but in the poorest, most deprived neighbourhoods three in 10 go to university. So there are still enormous gaps in the opportunities for young people to go to university, and it is hard to improve social mobility with that bottleneck in the access to university.

We are also concerned about the prospects for the poorest young people. They have an increased risk of being not in education, employment or training—NEET. We are, sadly, in tough economic times with high unemployment, and it is worth remembering the evidence that a period of unemployment, especially when very young, can scar someone for life. People’s lifetime earning prospects are affected, and it seems to affect the kind of jobs they have 20 years later.

Mr. Mark Field: It is also perhaps worth stressing that that applies not only to young people leaving school, but to those leaving university. Those who graduated during the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s have found their opportunities severely limited. Sadly, the same may apply to last year’s graduates and this year’s graduates—although we hope not for too much further forward than that. A recession is a very limiting experience, whenever one leaves full-time education.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is right, and that is why we propose, as a temporary measure, that extra postgraduate taught masterships should be made available for people leaving university this year who are finding it difficult to get a job.

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): The Government are committed to growth in postgraduate education along the lines that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I am sure that he will agree that although graduates face a tough autumn, in the medium to long term those in the employment market arrive in the end where they intended to be.

Mr. Willetts: Well, we hope so. We will have an unusual development this summer, which will see the toughest recruitment round for graduates since the big expansion of universities. We have had a steadily improving labour market overall for the past 15 years, and I hope
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that what the Minister says is correct and the evidence on the blighting of life chances by periods of unemployment does not apply to graduates. We will have to wait and see.

Young people will be the worst victims of the recession, because they will find it hard to get jobs when they leave university, and youth unemployment is rising. But even during the boom years in the first part of this decade, and while in other advanced economies youth unemployment was falling and the proportion of young people who were NEET was falling, Britain was already heading in the wrong direction. For example, among 16 to 24-year-olds unemployment rose in the UK between 1997 and 2007 from 13.4 per cent. to 14.4 per cent., while across the OECD it fell from 15.7 per cent. to 13.4 per cent. Our NEET rate for the same age group rose from 11.6 per cent. in 2000 to 13 per cent. in 2005, at the same time as the OECD average was falling. I make that point because that tells me that some features of Government policy meant that the problems were getting worse even when the overall economy was improving. There are some lessons that Ministers need to draw from that.

I can see the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property itching to intervene, but I will give way to him when I have completed my point. My belief is that the way in which he is funding FE colleges, through the Learning and Skills Council, to churn out paper qualifications makes it harder for people who were already detached from education to go through the doors of the FE colleges. The colleges wanted people who would get a national vocational qualification fast, and increasing numbers were therefore excluded from education and training by the performance indicators and funding systems that Ministers were applying. I would be interested to hear why the Minister disagrees.

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman knows, because we have had this debate before, that all of us, across the House, recognise that there are young people who are not in education, employment or training. I certainly see that in my constituency. That is why we want to take the age to which young people remain in training up to 18. Notwithstanding that, however, he knows—we have had this ding-dong in many television studios—that his figures include young people on gap years. They also include young people who are independently wealthy—there have been more of them, clearly, over the past 10 years—and young people who have had children, who have other commitments or who have particular disabilities. It is important to reflect on those figures and to dissociate them from the young people about whom he is particularly concerned.

Mr. Willetts: There are, of course, a range of reasons why young people are NEET, but I was quoting OECD figures that are comparable. They are on the same basis for Britain in 2005 as they are for Britain in 2000. They allow comparison between Britain and other advanced western countries. Whatever we think about the composition of that group, I am making two points about the trend. First, the trend in the UK was in the wrong direction. Secondly, the trend was in the wrong direction in the UK when the trend in the rest of the OECD, which was going through the same overall economic situation, was in the right direction. The Minister’s ingenuity does not explain what was going on.

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Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman will recognise that Britain had 10 successive years of growth. That situation was not replicated in other European countries; indeed, it was not replicated in Japan or the US, either. The inclusion in the figures of those who are independently wealthy as NEET makes my point.

Mr. Willetts: I am afraid that I do not follow the Minister’s point.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I did not follow the Minister’s point, either, but I probably misunderstood because I am sitting directly behind him. I am not making a cheap political point—I understand why the hon. Gentleman is going on about NEETs—but will he look at the new book launched on Wednesday by Oxford university, edited by Richard Pring, and especially the section on NEETs, which talks about the danger of even using the NEET category, as it can lead people towards rather bad answers in public policy?

Mr. Willetts: I have had this conversation with Professor Pring, and I want to make a further point about NEETs in a moment. Let me reiterate: the fact that we have had this economic growth across the west is not the point. I am quoting from the OECD documents on what has happened to NEETs in Britain compared with what happened in other advanced countries and across time. We have an obligation to explain these two trends in the wrong direction.

Let me turn to the practical measures that could be brought forward to tackle some of these problems. My list overlaps with some of the list given by the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, which is a sign of progress for both of us. It is not quite the same, but let me work through the options that are available. My list focuses on teenagers and beyond. The Minister said in passing that I was not a fan of Sure Start—but I think that it does an excellent job. However, I am sceptical about what has been called early-years determinism, which says if we do not fix children’s problems by the time they reach the age of three, we might as well give up. We must not become so obsessed with the early years that we forget the importance of providing opportunities for teenagers and adult learners. Sometimes the emphasis on early years has been so strong that we have lost sight of what happens later in life.

Angela E. Smith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for explaining his position, but he has misrepresented the Government. We have never suggested that we should give up on anything beyond early years, but we feel very strongly that support for early years is a crucial foundation for later development. He said that children’s experience in their early years need not determine their destiny, but the evidence is that those years can have a very great impact. If we ignore the early years, it is much more difficult to catch up later.

Mr. Willetts: I do not think that children’s opportunities can or should be determined by their experience in the early years. Early years matter, but I expect my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will speak later in the debate about what has happened to adult learning opportunities. The absolute decline of more than 1 million adult learning places suggests that there has been such an exclusive focus on early years that the opportunities for people later on in life to reshape their careers and get new skills have indeed been reduced.

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I want to return to working through my list. The first item about which I think that the Minister and I agree is the importance of careers advice. I want to refer to the Nuffield-Rathbone study—another version of that research was published this week—but my interpretation is slightly different from the Minister’s. It is easy to say that there is a problem of aspiration, and the report does contain some evidence in that regard, but the Nuffield-Rathbone researchers present a somewhat different argument.

Interviews were conducted with young people who were NEETs or otherwise disengaged from education and so unlikely to go to university. The study said:

Those young people aspired to conventional jobs, such as chef, solicitor, holiday rep, bar worker, plumber and so on but, as the study went on to say,

The study added that they were pessimistic about where they would be in 10 years’ time.

If anything, the problem has to do with the routes to achieving aspirations. Young people have to find their way through a maze if they want to get the A-levels that they need to get on the course that is best for fulfilling their aspirations. Some very ingenious traps have been laid to send them down the wrong route. It would be perfectly reasonable for a person to think that a law A-level would be a good route to becoming a lawyer, but we know that it is not a particularly good path to studying law at university or beyond. It is therefore not a good way to achieve aspirations in the law.

I remember a fascinating interview on “Woman’s Hour” a few weeks ago. A young woman engineer had come up with an ingenious device to serve as a low-energy fridge for the third world. It comprised two containers, one inside the other: the external one held soil or grass that absorbed water, whose evaporation cooled the contents of the internal container. The interviewer said to the inventor, “But you didn’t do engineering at university.” The young woman replied, “No one told me I needed to do maths for that, so I couldn’t do it.” It is clear that there are people with great aptitudes and aspirations who are being let down because they are not being given a route through the maze. That is why careers advice is so important.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman is making a fascinating speech, but all the research done by the Select Committee and the Skills Commission, which I co-chair, is that the quality of information, advice and guidance for kids from economically challenged backgrounds is very poor. In contrast, middle-class children have a network of uncles, aunts and other people who are graduates and have professional experience and so they get high-quality advice to back up their aspirations.

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