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Mr. Milburn: The hon. Gentleman is on to a very important point. One thing that I am absolutely convinced about, not just from anecdotal evidence but from academic
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evidence, is that the problem is not that young people do not have aspirations, it is that they are blocked in fulfilling them. It is not that the country does not have talent—to coin a phrase, Britain’s got talent. It’s got lots of talent. The issue is how we can unleash it.

Not everybody will aspire to be, or have the aptitude to be, a doctor or a lawyer—of course not. Not everybody will want to come into this place. However, for those who do, surely our objective as a society must be to ensure an equal opportunity, in the best sense of the phrase, for them to achieve that. I fear that that does not exist today.

Mr. Sheerman: I am fascinated by my right hon. Friend’s work in listening to young people. Our Committee has also listened to young people, and we have found that physical mobility is a challenge in our country today. When we had national service, in the period to which my right hon. Friend referred, young working-class men in particular were very mobile—they went around the country and around the world for the first time. More and more young people are now stuck on their estates or in their towns and are not very physically mobile. Middle-class children go away to university and are very mobile. Physical mobility is important in raising aspirations.

Mr. Milburn: When I compare my kids’ experiences and life chances with those of my childhood, it shows that we are living in a different world. It is amazing, and something to cherish about modern society that, by and large, there are fantastic opportunities for more and more people. We live in a world of opportunity. Notwithstanding the problems of economic recession, we live in a world of greater plenty than ever. However, my hon. Friend is right that, at the bottom end, there is ghettoisation of disadvantage. We should all, regardless of political persuasion or ideology, be deeply concerned about that for the reason that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) mentioned: the good of our society. That is what we should be bothered about in this place. I therefore believe that the work of my fellow panel members and that of the hon. Member for Havant on social mobility is so important.

I am pleased that social mobility has become such a cause cél├Ębre in modern political discourse. We have a common problem, to which we might not have common solutions, but we are determined to do something about the dichotomy of opportunity to which my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) referred.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I am sorry to have missed the early part of the debate. I will read it in Hansard and examine the detail of the work of my right hon. Friend’s panel. Has he studied of the need to allow entry to the professions at more mature ages? Does he recollect from his experience as Secretary of State for Health the advent of the Peninsula medical school and the way in which it opens up opportunities for people to enter the medical profession?

Mr. Milburn: Oh happy days! Yes, I do, and I also well remember my hon. Friend’s championing of Peninsula’s cause. She knows that Sir John Tooke, who does a fantastic job at Peninsula, is one of the panel members. It is not only one of the most progressive but one of the best medical schools in the country—I should have said “and”, not “but” in that sentence. It is one of the best
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because it is one of the most progressive. John is an impressive person who brings great knowledge and insight to the panel’s work. My hon. Friend is right. I think that the hon. Member for Havant made the same point in his contribution.

There is a danger in debates on education. There are strong adherents to the importance of early years education, and there are those who say, “What really counts is pre-16”, while others say, “In the modern world, where skills are changing ever faster, it’s about what happens post-16.” However, it is not a case of either/or. We must move from a mindset of educational opportunity having to be about a one-off chance—it is not; it must be a chance throughout life. If ever there were a need to realise the slogan, “lifelong learning”, it is now, in the modern world. The world is changing so fast and knowledge is expanding so quickly that if we limit children to a one-off opportunity at 11, 16 or 18, we will do current and future generations an enormous disservice.

Of course, no single lever can prise open opportunities in the professions and no single organisation can achieve that. The subject is far too complex. It is as much about family networks as careers advice; as much about standards in schools as university admission procedures, and as much about work experience as career development opportunities. The panel is looking at all those aspects and many more, but it might help the House to know that we are focusing on a handful of issues in particular and to hear where we are in our consideration of them.

First, how do we provide many more young people with practical exposure to the professions at an early enough stage in their education? There is no shortage of fantastic schemes, including school outreach and mentoring schemes, run by fabulous organisations such as the Brightside Trust, the Sutton Trust, the Citizenship Foundation and the Social Mobility Foundation. Exposure to what it means to be a doctor, a lawyer, a journalist or even—heaven help us—a politician and hearing first hand what it means to do the job is particularly important, as we have discussed, for kids who come from families who have no such exposure to professional careers. Such schemes often have a bigger impact on children’s career development than school work experience programmes do, which are crying out for a radical overhaul. Good though the initiatives that I have mentioned are, however, they are pretty fragmented and deeply unco-ordinated. To give one example, only 60 of the 260 combined cadet forces, from which so many future armed service officers are drawn, are based in state schools. The rest are based in independent schools.

That, like so much else, is something that we have to change. So too is the way in which we provide advice and guidance, so that young people can make an informed choice about the career that is right for them. This is the second area on which the panel is rightly focusing attention. Like the hon. Member for Havant, I believe that a fundamental overhaul is needed. We have a more complex labour market than ever before. More than ever, navigating young people through the choices, opportunities and complexities that they now confront requires good careers advice. Yet one survey of students found that three in four were unhappy with the quality of the advice that they had received. A further survey, commissioned by the panel from the very good careers
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website icould and released today, found that 70 per cent. of under-14-year-olds say that they have had no careers advice and that 45 per cent. of over-14-year-olds say that they have had no advice or very limited advice. Girls rate the advice rather worse than boys do.

During all our proceedings, all our hearings and all our evidence-gathering sessions, I have heard barely one good word about the careers work of the Connexions service. I have no doubt that other aspects of its work are absolutely exemplary. However, I can only conclude that its focus on the small minority of vulnerable young people with deep, entrenched and complex problems is unfortunately distracting it from providing good careers advice to the majority of young people. That is simply not good enough. I know that there has been some change, but in my view the service requires a quite radical rethink. I can tell the House that my panel will be making recommendations on precisely how we should do so.

Thirdly, getting a professional job nowadays requires more than aptitude and ability and more, even, than a qualification. People also have to be able to demonstrate work experience. Four out of five employers say that they go on to employ interns. Internships have become, as it were, a new rung on the modern professional career ladder. All too often, however, internships are handed out on the basis of who someone knows, not what they know. Too often, what counts is family connections, rather than open advertisement. That, too, must change. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, most internships in careers such as law are overwhelmingly concentrated in London and the south-east. Because interns usually have to work for free, many young people from average family backgrounds are simply priced out of the intern market altogether.

Again, that is an area on which the panel will be making recommendations for change.

Fourthly, the way in which employers and universities go about selecting their entrants will of course determine the future social profile of the professions. Some make a big effort to recruit widely; others recruit very narrowly. In the end, it is for employers to decide how they go about recruiting their staff, but whereas nowadays we collect and publish data on the gender and racial make-up of organisations to ensure that those such as the civil service are what they say on the tin—and are equal opportunities employers—we neither collect nor publish comparable data on social background. In my view, we need to think very carefully about that.

Mr. Hayes: Does not that tie in closely with the point made by the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee about the white working-class youngsters who, with few champions and feeling left out, fare worse in the circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman describes? We have made great progress with minority groups, but little progress with those young people.

Mr. Milburn: It is important in these debates to ensure that the emphasis is on all groups and not just on some. However, we also have to recognise that different people from different backgrounds have different starting points in life. There is no equality of life chances at the beginning of life, and public policy will quite rightly
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want to intervene to ensure that life chances are made available subsequently. My point is a simple one, however. I believe that things have fundamentally changed in, for example, the civil service. There was a time when the debate in the civil service centred on its being all white and all male. That might still be overwhelmingly true, but it is less so. What was the change that made the biggest difference? Of course, some will say that it was the changes in legislation that we passed in this place, but what really made the difference was changes in information. That is an area that we need deeply to consider.

Mr. Sheerman: I fear that Quentin Letts will have another go at me for making this point. Let us look at the diversity of the BBC, which it brags about. According to many criteria, including ethnicity and gender, it is a very diverse employer, but when it comes to social class, we see that people who studied in independent schools are hugely over-represented there. I shall now wait to see the Daily Mail.

Mr. Milburn: Yes, I have a feeling it will be coming my hon. Friend’s way.

I guess that we knew that, although it is just a guess. That is the point, I suppose. I guess that we had a hunch about it, and we have some rudimentary data, but they are pretty rudimentary. This is an issue of accountability for public sector bodies, including the BBC, to consider. They are funded from the public purse—from the taxpayer’s money. They must ensure that they are as broadly representative as possible of the population as a whole that they serve. However, the only way we will ever know whether that is happening is by collecting and disseminating the relevant data.

Mr. Sheerman: I recently wrote an article in the Fabian Review that gave me some notoriety. In it, I pointed out that people who are paid from the public purse, including vice-chancellors, head teachers, the heads of children’s services and those who work for the BBC, should be expected to send their children to state schools.

Mr. Milburn: That is a slightly more contentious point. Is it time for my hon. Friend to leave?

We know that when universities broaden their base for recruitment, it does not lower levels of achievement. Figures from the Higher Education Funding Council show that students from state schools, once they get into university, perform at the same level as—or at a higher level than—students from private schools who might have got higher grades at A-level. The hon. Member for Havant referred to the fantastic scheme at King’s college. In my view, it is an exemplar that all universities and employers would do well to heed. Why? Because it contains this simple lesson: it is not ability but opportunity that is unevenly distributed. The job of universities in particular is to ensure that opportunities are as widely distributed as possible, but some would find it hard to make that claim right now.

Fifthly, entry to a professional job increasingly requires a university degree, as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings mentioned. In the old days, as he said, journalists could work their way up from a local paper to Fleet street. Nowadays, Fleet street no longer exists and journalism is a graduate entry profession.
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Nursing and social care are now joining a long list of professions increasingly becoming graduate entry. There may be, and there often are, very good reasons for that, but there is also the danger that qualification inflation will simply make these professions more socially exclusive than they need to be.

What I find interesting about so much professional work in recent years—the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) rightly defended the professions—can be seen in the teaching profession, which has recently sought to disaggregate and devolve some of its functions to non-graduates, so we now have classroom assistants helping teachers in the classroom. We have health care assistants helping nurses on the wards and we have police community support officers helping police officers on the streets. I think that there is an important lesson to be learned from that, which is how the professions can begin to create new ladders of opportunity by devolving functions down rather than always seeming to take functions and qualification levels up. I can tell the House that my panel is looking at how to extend such opportunities.

Many of the panel’s recommendations will, of course, be for the professions to action, and I have seen a lot of willingness on their part to do so. The most progressive parts of the professions are already opening their doors to a wider cohort of talent. I hope that when we produce the report in the autumn, it will very much go with the grain of those efforts. Equally, where there remains evidence of a closed-shop mentality, I hope that we will be fearless in exposing and tackling it. I do not believe that it is only in the country’s interest for the professions to fish in a wider pool of talent, as it is in the professions’ own interests, too. If the professions are properly to serve the interests of a Britain that is characterised by its rich diversity more than ever before, they, too, need more fully to embrace the notion of diversity. Despite some commendable efforts, that is not, by and large, where I believe they are today.

Achieving that is not just a job for the professions. Of course, they can do a lot more to put their house in order, but what they cannot do is instil in kids an aspiration to pursue a professional career. That has to come from individual citizens, their families and their communities. Neither can the professions create the framework within which individuals will have many more opportunities to realise their aspirations to progress. That is properly the job of the Government.

There is a broader canvas here, which both the hon. Member for Havant and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office touched on in their remarks. In my view—I stress that this is my view and not necessarily that of the panel—it is a canvas on which we need to begin to paint a rather different picture. I said earlier that I am very proud of what this Government have done to open up more opportunities to more people. Like many others, I would have liked progress to have been faster, but it is no mean achievement when the Sutton Trust can report that after decades of social mobility declining in our country, it has now at the very least bottomed out.

That is progress. It is also progress when primary schools in the poorest areas have improved almost twice as fast as those in the most affluent, and when in the secondary school sector, city academies—despite having twice the number of kids on free school meals—are
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improving their performance at four times the national average. It is also progress when, notwithstanding our debate about early years education, this country has finally begun to learn the lessons from the Scandinavian countries where universal child care has for many years brought enhanced mobility and narrowed inequality.

This, for me, is a fundamental point: the desire to increase social mobility cannot be a substitute for the desire for a more equal society. It is no coincidence that countries as different as Sweden, Australia and the Netherlands are among the most socially fluid in the world. They are also among the most fair in the world. That is why the Government’s efforts—despite the obvious challenges—to abolish child poverty are so important, and that is why I hope all parties in the House will make similar firm commitments, backed by firm resources, to achieve that objective.

Breaking the relationship between class origin and class destination is a battle for the long term, which requires an holistic approach. Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel prize for economics, once rightly said families can suffer not only economic but cultural, educational and housing disadvantage. We need to make a fundamental break from the approach that has so often dominated policy in the past. We need to move from the traditional welfare state approach, which seeks to correct the outcome of market-driven inequalities such as family poverty or low wages retrospectively, towards an approach that proactively reduces inequality and advances mobility by tackling the roots of those problems rather than their symptoms. That is not a job for any one part of the Government; it is a job for the whole Government.

Let me give an example. We know that in a modern, knowledge-based economy, education will become ever more the motor of mobility, but despite the good progress of recent years, the attainment gap remains far too wide. A child who is not receiving free school meals is still much more likely to get five good GCSEs than one who is. Less than half the number of black Afro-Caribbean boys get five good GCSEs, although the national average is closer to two thirds.

Like many others, I applaud the Government’s efforts to break that cycle of educational disadvantage. City academies, trust schools, a focus on personalised learning and the new soft skill development described in the Rose review are making a difference, and I think that they will continue to do so in future. However, I believe that we need to do more still to ensure that good schools are just as accessible to poorer parents as they are to the better-off. The truth is that the more wealth people have, the more choice they are given. If they are wealthy enough, they can opt their children out of poorer schools and take them to private schools. I have no objection to that. Alternatively, they can supplement state education with private tuition, or use the most potent of all market mechanisms and buy a house adjacent to a good school.

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