9 January 2019
Nadhim Zahawi responds to social mobility debate

Nadhim Zahawi responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on social mobility in the North West.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank the hon. Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) for securing this vital debate, and I welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government. She spoke powerfully of her experience growing up and the experience through the eyes of a young person growing up in Leigh.

At this point, it would be remiss of me not to mention my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), who was born and bred in Leigh. He grew up and left school with only five O-levels and no A-levels, went to hairdressing college, opened a salon, which became the biggest hair salon and chain in the Leigh area, before he became the MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale. His son is a lawyer from Leigh. That is a true example of social mobility in Leigh. I also thank the hon. Members who have so far contributed to this important debate: my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), and the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and for St Helens North (Conor McGinn).

We welcome the debate secured by the hon. Member for Leigh—it is important that we take a close look at social mobility. Rightly, social mobility is a critical priority for the Government and, as she argues, it is a challenge that requires action across the whole of Government in order to make progress. Our social housing Green Paper, for example, makes social mobility a key priority, and we are the Government who introduced the national living wage and increased it at the last Budget. The hon. Lady is also right to single out the importance of good transport connections for regional prosperity. That is why £48 billion will be invested in modernising our rail network over the next five years.

To ensure that our efforts are joined up across Government, the industrial strategy provides a comprehensive plan to ensure that no place is left behind when it comes to boosting opportunity and growth. That strategy sets out the steps that we are taking to spur productivity and to create more high-skilled and high-paying jobs. We are delivering that agenda not only across Whitehall, but through our local industrial strategies, local enterprise partnerships and with mayoral combined authorities.

As a Minister in the Department for Education, however, I hope that the hon. Lady will understand if I focus the majority of my remarks on that subject, although not just because of my day job. As someone who came to this country unable to speak English, I know at first hand how education can change lives and open the doors of opportunity. We still live in a country where someone’s start in life far too often determines their future success. Education can and should break this link by helping everyone to fulfil their potential. I am pleased to say that the Government have made significant progress in closing the opportunity gap when it comes to education. The difference in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has been reduced across all stages of education, and through our opportunity areas programme, we are targeting extra support at some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country.

Yet there can be no room for complacency. It is both an economic and a moral imperative that we ensure the schools system works for all and that it does so up and down the country.

Chris Green

Does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that, on youth social mobility, my constituency comes 73rd out of 553 constituencies from around England and Wales? I also want to support the idea of a huge sense of responsibility—a duty—not only for local entrepreneurs to invest in the local communities but for local councils to support local business, provide opportunities and enable those businesses to invest. It is so much more inspirational when someone comes from our own community.

Nadhim Zahawi

My hon. Friend makes the point about engagement by local councils eloquently. He pursues such engagement passionately, locally and nationally.

The reason why we take action in every region and at every stage of a young person’s life is to close the opportunity gap. I will now take each of the stages of education in turn, reflecting in particular on the progress that we have made in the north-west of England.

Good early years education is the cornerstone of social mobility and we are making record investment in that area. Too many children, however, still fall behind early, and later in life it is hard to close the gap that emerges. Today, 28% of children finish their reception year without the early communication and reading skills that they need to thrive. The Secretary of State has set out his ambition to halve that figure by 2028. We have announced a range of initiatives to deliver it, including a local authority peer review programme, which we piloted in Wigan, and a professional development fund for early years practitioners in 54 local authorities.

The Government are committed to help parents to access affordable childcare, which is why we will spend about £6 billion on childcare support in 2019-20, a record amount. That will include funding for our free early education entitlements, on which we plan to spend £3.5 billion this year alone. I am pleased to say that, in Wigan, take-up of all the Government childcare entitlements is high: 93% of eligible children there took up care that we made available for two-year-olds, which figure is substantially higher than the national average of 72%; equally, 95% of three and four-year-olds took up an entitlement place, which is also higher than the national average. During the first year of delivery, more than 2,700 children in Wigan benefited from the places that we made available under our policy offering of 30 hours of free childcare.

On school education, we target extra support at the poorest areas of the country to raise standards and to attract great teachers to our primary and secondary schools. I know that schools have faced cost pressures in recent years, but I am happy to report that schools in the north-west will attract an average of 2.8% more funding per pupil by 2019-20 compared with 2017-18.

Conor McGinn

Will the Minister give way?

Nadhim Zahawi

I am trying to make headway, but if I have time, I will come back to the hon. Gentleman towards the end.

This year, the north-west received more than £369 million in additional funding through the pupil premium, giving more than 300,000 disadvantaged young people extra support for their education.

On post-16 education, our efforts do not stop when school comes to an end. Social mobility means that everyone must have the right level of ongoing support to help them on to a path to a skilled job. That could be via university, but it could also be a more practical, technical path. I am sure that the hon. Member for Leigh and I agree that getting that right is critical to boost regional growth and to expand access to opportunity for all. In the current academic year, we invested more than £750 million in the education of 16 to 19-year-olds in the north-west, with £80 million of that funding allocated specifically to support disadvantaged students in reaching their potential, whether that is for employment or ongoing education.

For those who want to take the academic route, we will ensure its availability as well. We therefore welcome the fact that more disadvantaged pupils than ever before go on to university. In 2010, more than a quarter—27.6%, in fact—of 18-year-olds from the north-west entered university; by 2018, that figure had risen to one in three, or 33.1%, so the north-west outperformed all English regions outside London and the south-east. Data released by the Department for Education in November of last year showed that 23% of students eligible for free school meals from the north-west had entered higher education by age 19 in 2016-17. That compares with 26% for England, with only London and the west midlands having a higher rate.

In the north-west, the Office for Students has invested more than £15 million through its national collaborative outreach programme, with key programmes in Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. The Government have also embarked on a long-overdue overhaul of technical education, which is why we are acting to expand high-quality apprenticeships. In the 2017-18 academic year, the 58,120 apprenticeship starts in the north-west were 15.5% of all such starts in England.

Skills challenges and priorities differ not only across the country, but within regions such as the north-west. We heard that from the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate. We must therefore collaborate with local partners in order to ensure our reforms make sense on the ground, which was very much his point. That means working with employers and providers, and supporting individuals who want to succeed in life and work. We have also introduced skills advisory panels, which will bring together local employers and skills providers to pool knowledge on skills and labour market needs in the regions. That will help to address local skills gaps more effectively.

We are to introduce a national retraining scheme, an ambitious and far-reaching programme to drive adult learning and retraining. It will be in place by the end of this Parliament. The Chancellor recently announced £100 million to roll out initial elements of the scheme across the country. That accompanies funding announced in the previous budget for the Greater Manchester combined authority to test different approaches to encourage and support adults to undertake training.

I am happy to take an intervention if the hon. Member for St Helens North still wishes to make one.

Conor McGinn

The Minister is so generous to take one intervention from the Opposition in the 10 minutes for which he has spoken. None the less, I appreciate it.

When I visit schools in my constituency, teachers and headteachers tell me that they have less money, fewer resources and larger class sizes. Does that have an impact on social mobility?

Nadhim Zahawi

We have protected the schools budget. I hope that I made that clear earlier in my remarks, when I also recognised that there are financial pressures on schools.

Progress on social mobility is critical to our shared prosperity. No progress is possible without action in every part of a young person’s education and in every part of our country. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leigh for beginning the year with a debate on a subject that is fundamental to our future success as a country. Again, I thank my colleagues for their contributions—my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West and the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston, for Enfield, Southgate and for St Helens North—and congratulate my brilliant PPS, my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale, on his ability not only to build a great business but to be a very successful musician. He has delivered real social mobility in Leigh.