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By and large, selection by academic ability has disappeared from our education system, but let us not pretend that selection by social position has disappeared. Unfortunately, we still have an education system in which affluence buys attainment, and that must restrict mobility. There are 25,000 schools in the country. In the overwhelming majority standards are rising, but in 2007, 638 secondary schools containing around 600,000 kids were failing to secure five good GCSEs for 30 per cent.
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of their pupils. Overwhelmingly, those schools have been consistently underperforming for many years, and guess what? They are located in the areas of greatest social disadvantage.

I have long advocated that, in addition to the raft of measures that the Government have rightly introduced to improve standards and discipline and provide good teachers, and in addition to all the other structural changes that have been made, one further step should be taken. Kids and their parents in disadvantaged areas must be given precisely what kids and parents in more affluent areas get, which is more than preference: it is choice.

My proposal to do so, in which I have long believed, is for those parents to be given an education credit—some call it a voucher; I am bothered not what it is called, but what it does—worth perhaps 150 per cent. of the cost of educating their child, so that they can take their child from the school that is failing to deliver good results to another state school that is delivering results. I know that there will be many objections and concerns about such a proposal, but I do not believe that it is right—or that it should be tolerated—to have a situation where too many disadvantaged kids are still let down by the schools system. Overwhelmingly, I repeat, school standards are rising, but sadly the areas where they rise least and where most progress needs to be made are in the poorest areas. The only way in which I believe that can be done is by empowering parents to have greater choice.

That brings me to my final point. I do not believe that we will get social mobility moving in this country if we think that somehow or other it is purely economic distribution that is our problem. We will not get social mobility moving if we think that it is only wealth that is unevenly distributed. It is also power. When you are poor you have precious little power. The sense of hopelessness that clouds the poorest communities in our country grows out of disempowerment. If Britain is to get moving again socially, people need to be able not just to get a job, training or child care but to enjoy far greater control over, and have a bigger say in, how they lead their lives. Beating crime, creating jobs and rebuilding estates all help, but I have long believed that that cloud of despondency can be dispelled only through a modern participatory politics that allows both local communities and individual citizens more evenly and directly to share in power.

One thing is certain. Modern Britain cannot work if it harbours a closed shop mentality. Our economy will not prosper unless we harness the talent of all of those who are able to and aspire to make a contribution. Our society will not work unless people feel that their endeavours and efforts are suitably rewarded. That is why I hope that the work of the panel that I am honoured to chair will help renew our determination in this place systematically to unblock every obstacle that stands in the way of individuals being able to realise their own aspirations to progress. That for me is what modern government is all about and that is why I very much welcome this debate.

3.43 pm

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): It is a daunting prospect to follow such a knowledgeable and interesting speech from the right hon. Member for Darlington
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(Mr. Milburn) and to have to confess that I am one of the third of Members of this House educated in an independent school. I am feeling waves of class guilt this afternoon. I welcome the Minister to her new role.

Clearly the debate is topical. All three main parties have had commissions of some kind or instituted research into social mobility. It is an important issue to people all across the political spectrum. As the matter has been discussed across the spectrum, some interesting views have been expressed in blogs and in political commentary in newspapers and the media.

There have been mutterings from some quarters that wealthy parents obviously will have children who do better because the parents are likely to be more educated, more intelligent and more motivated and will expect their children to do better, and that that is the real explanation for the lack of social mobility in Britain. There may be something in that, but there are also clear signs that children in Britain from disadvantaged backgrounds who show great potential are being let down. A lot of statistics have been flying back and forth this afternoon, but one in particular sends shivers down my spine: tests on pre-school children at age three show that the initially least bright children from the richest fifth of households overtake the initially brightest children from the poorest fifth of households between the ages of five and 10. That shows not only that there are many influences at play other than genes, but that that happens remarkably fast. I find it horrifying that from the age of three in just two years we see a marked change in children’s opportunities.

Education and upbringing are an influence. Those who get a superior education in a school that does not have discipline problems and where the other pupils are keen to learn will have an advantage that sticks with them into later life, and the impact of a private education is much greater than we would expect. For example, students who have a private education are 55 times more likely to be accepted into one of the five best universities in the UK. That is far higher than we would expect as a result of normal opportunity, genetics, parents’ expectations and so forth.

The Government are keen to tackle this issue; they have been talking about it, and they have put in place many measures over the past few years. However, the same barriers are still in place, and some of them are even greater than before. Each year, 60,000 people who were in the top 20 per cent. of their school cohort do not reach higher education. That is a lot of people whose potential is being wasted as they enter adulthood. Although the Government have focused on education, there has not been enough progress towards making a step change.

There is considerable evidence that the introduction and expansion of universal education systems in the UK and broadly across western Europe have not led to increases in relative social mobility.

Mr. Hayes: Indeed, the hon. Lady might go further: I would go so far as to say that the expansion of university education over my lifetime has cemented social division.

Jenny Willott: There is an argument for that. Some of the statistics on graduate training show that that has led to certain divisions, and the increase in people going through university has led to the possibility for professions
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to insist on a degree. However, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman if he is saying that it is not a good thing to encourage more people to acquire more qualifications through further or higher education; we should all be striving to achieve that.

Mr. Hayes: I was making the point not that that is a bad thing, but that it is a good thing that is largely the preserve of one class of people. Progress in working-class people entering higher education has been stultifyingly slow. Consequently, most middle-class young people now achieve in terms of higher education, whereas most working-class people do not. That is highly injurious to social mobility.

Jenny Willott: There is certainly a class divide in which children go to university and the universities to which they go, and I shall return to that issue shortly.

I agree with the Minister about the importance of early-years education. There is a lot of evidence showing that if we do not sort out some problems at a very early stage, it is significantly harder and more expensive, although not impossible, to solve them later. Making the investment at a very early stage pays dividends in the long run by helping children to fulfil their potential later in life.

I have concerns, however, that where investment has been put in at an early stage, such as in children’s centres and Sure Start projects, there is evidence that, contrary to the Government’s expectations, middle-class parents have been much better at accessing that additional support than the families at which it is supposed to be targeted. In an unexpected way, the disadvantage of some of the most disadvantaged families has thus been further entrenched.

One Liberal Democrat proposal that could help to address this problem is to increase further the availability of free child care. I have encountered a number of constituency cases where people have been unable to return to training and education after having children because they are not able to access child care tax credits unless they are working. There would be significant advantages to providing wider access to free, very high-quality child care for parents who want to go back to study and to train, particularly those who have not had the opportunity to do so the first time around. I am thinking, for example, of young mothers whose children are likely to start off disadvantaged if that is not provided.

One of the reasons such provision could have a significant impact is that parents who have a low level of skills are less likely to be able to help their children as they go through school. Some 5 million adults in Britain are classified as functionally illiterate, and 17 million adults have basic numeracy problems. Clearly, their children are going to have fewer advantages when they go through the schools system, because their parents are able to provide less support for doing homework and so on. No matter how bright the children are, another layer of disadvantage is ingrained.

As has been discussed, such circumstances also have an impact on expectations. There is evidence that the primary source of expectations in life is one's parents—that seems to be common sense—but the surrounding community and one's school peers also have a significant impact. Someone whose parents went to university is much more likely to expect to go there too. Other parents want what they did not have for themselves and
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therefore really push their children to go to university, to progress and to get into the professions, but a worrying number of parents do not have any higher expectations for their children than they have for themselves.

Last month, I spoke to a lady in south Wales who had just encouraged her daughter to leave school as soon as she turned 16 and could do so—before she did her GCSEs. The mother took that approach because she had hated school, did not trust teachers and thought school was a complete waste of time. That leaves two generations of a family with no qualifications. That is such a waste of potential, and we really need to find ways of circumventing it and ensuring that there remains a way to motivate young people who have potential and to give them expectations and aspirations. We also need to help people who have those things to see where that could lead and to develop.

Mr. Hayes: I promise that this is my last intervention, because it might eat into my own time, and that would be monstrous. I invite the hon. Lady to make a more subtle point about the difference between expectation and ambition. It may well be that people have ambitions and aspirations but do not have expectations. Perhaps that is the problem.

Jenny Willott: Absolutely, and I think that parents have a very important role to play in that. They may want a lot for their children yet still not believe it is possible for them to achieve it. In such cases, schools and teachers have a very important role to play in building expectations in the children of what can be achieved.

The Minister and the right hon. Member for Darlington mentioned some of the figures on parents' and young people's expectations of going into the professions. There is a more basic difference in people's expectations of their children going to university. More than a third of parents in the A and B socio-economic groups expect that their children will go to university, whereas the figure is about one in 10 for parents in groups D and E. That marked difference goes back to the point that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has just made. If expectation is not built in, even if somebody has the ambition to do something they will not necessarily have the ability to take the final step to do it. We need to overcome that by creating other role models for children at both primary and secondary school. Leaving it all to secondary school is too late. We need expectation, ambition and aspiration from a much earlier stage.

Much work has been done to try to get inspirational teachers into schools in deprived areas, and that can make a big difference. My mother-in-law was a maths teacher in a very run-down area of Liverpool, although she was not from that background. Having a diverse range of teachers in schools in deprived areas makes a big difference to pupils who can see different ways for their lives to progress. We need to ensure that we replicate that across the country.

A role could also be played by former students of such schools who have been successful—perhaps who have gone to university and got professional jobs. They could try to encourage more young people to follow them in their success. We have already heard about schemes that have been introduced in universities, schools and independent bodies, but there are some interesting
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schemes that are nothing to do with career progression. For example, Allen & Overy, the law firm, has a scheme in which its lawyers are encouraged to help in schools in east London, perhaps providing basic help with reading. That helps the children, because they get personal attention from someone who focuses on them and makes them feel important. It also breaks down barriers if they see that someone who works as a corporate lawyer in the City of London is a normal human being, doing a job that they could perhaps do themselves. It brings the job closer to the young person so that they see that it is something that they could do. It is important to replicate schemes like that to try to break down some of the barriers that are in place.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the role of careers advisers. I agree that they have a crucial role to play, and at a much earlier stage. I was given my first careers advice when I was about 17 and a half—although the advisers did not recommend that I enter Parliament. By that stage, I had already made choices that would limit what I could do, and we need to look at the choices that young people have to make and give them more options.

Universities could also do a lot more to try to encourage people from more unusual backgrounds to think about attending. My constituency covers Cardiff university, which has a scheme that involves a lot of outreach work in schools in the much more deprived parts of the city. Students work with young people as, effectively, classroom assistants, trying to encourage them to think about university and their options. In particular, female engineering students go into schools to try to encourage young women to think about career options such as engineering that they often will not have considered as a possibility. Given the geographical spread of universities across the country, there is a huge opportunity for them to do more outreach work in schools nearby to encourage young people. There are some very good examples of such schemes already, and it is one important way of breaking down some of the expectational barriers.

Many young people, especially boys, do not pull their lives together and work out what they want to do until they have left school. If we expect everyone to rely on careers advice during their teens, too many people will fall through the gaps. Hon. Members have already mentioned the need for flexible routes into the professions. Some professions are good at doing that. For example, it is still relatively easy—although less common than it used to be—to go into accountancy through a non-graduate route. Nor is it necessary to be a graduate to pursue Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development qualifications. But more could be done to use people’s work experience. As the right hon. Member for Darlington pointed out, there are many divisions in some areas, such as PCSOs working with the police and classroom assistants working with teachers, and it is a big step for those who go into the non-graduate jobs to progress to the other roles.

We need to consider making it much easier for PCSOs to use their experience to pursue a career in the police, and for classroom assistants to move into teaching. We must recognise that if they have the ability, the experience that they get on the job can be just as useful—if not even more valuable—as university in enabling them to fulfil a career that would otherwise be considered a
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graduate-only job. A lot of work could be done to help create career paths that would enable people to move, such as having fewer graduate posts so that people who do not have the opportunity to go to university or who realise later on in life what they want to do can progress into the professions.

Quite a bit has already been said about the need for work experience and internships, and about the barriers that they put up. Clearly, some people find that difficult to access through the necessary contacts or find it expensive. The cost is probably one of the biggest issues for a lot of people from disadvantaged areas. We are just as guilty in this place. A lot of researchers find their work by doing volunteer internships and working in an MP’s office, and that puts such a career out of the reach of an awful lot of young people. We need to consider how we recruit staff and try to encourage other people to apply. Internships and work experience are an easy way to get free labour for many of the professions, but they should not be seen as that—because they can be, barriers are being put up that do significant damage to the professions in the long run.

The cost of internships and so on is not the only cost that puts people off. A lot of the professional training takes longer than other routes into work. Medicine requires a five-year degree, and law a three-year degree followed by one or two years of training. Not only do people face the additional cost of studying for a longer period, but they have to put off until later their ability to start earning. That makes it difficult for some people even to contemplate going into those careers. It is just too big a step for them to take right at the beginning. That is why it should be easier to get into those careers later on. Those who had the aspiration at a young age but found the financial barrier too great at the age of 18 would be able to find other ways in through working that enabled them to reach the same end result.

It is also important that we flag up that this is not just about education. The right hon. Member for Darlington mentioned some of the other great barriers that prevent people from disadvantaged backgrounds from being able to progress into professional roles. Elements as basic as expectations and the drive to succeed are affected by other factors as people are growing up. It is not just parents’ expectations that affect people’s views and aspirations, but those of friends at school and of the community.

One thing that has had a significant impact on people’s expectations and aspirations over the past few decades has been segregated social housing. It has exacerbated a lot of the problems in areas that are blighted by crime, family problems and health problems, but there is also a lot of evidence that negative forms of social capital have built up in certain geographical areas that are often associated with social housing. There is much more likely to be a culture of worklessness, higher levels of antisocial behaviour and higher levels of drug abuse. There are likely to be a lack of positive role models in the community, negative peer pressure and a poverty of ambition around people as they grow up, and that has had a significant impact on large numbers of communities across the UK.

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