18 June 2019

Climbing the ladder of opportunity

By Robert Halfon MP

Social justice has been my compass since I entered politics. I want to bring voice to those who have none, hope to those who are on the margins of our collective vision, and improve the prospects of those who have fallen by the wayside.

I believe the best way to do this is to give people the means to learn, grow and thrive. The means to inquire. The means to build their own prosperity. In other words, I believe that the chance to develop good skills and social justice are naturally bound together.

If strong skills are the clearest route to a better life, then how well are we doing? Well, first let’s look at what we are doing right. There is no doubt that education has improved in recent years, and I have a great deal of admiration for all the work the Government has done to ameliorate academic standards since taking the reins in 2010. Our children’s education now has more rigour. We have a system that encourages schools to innovate and raise their game. We are stripping out many qualifications that hold no real currency with employers.

Exams are more challenging, which is elevating our children’s skills levels so they can get good jobs and compete in a global skills race. The highest proportion of 16- and 17-year-olds on record are in education.

And we have some of the finest universities in the world. Yet despite the progress that has been made, social injustice is still endemic in every part of our education system. Just over half of children eligible for free school meals achieve a good level of development by the time they start primary school. A child living in one of England’s poorest areas is 10 times more likely to go to a substandard school than one living in its richest areas.

Disadvantaged children are behind their peers at every key point in their education: on average, four months behind at the end of reception year, 11 months behind at the end of primary school and 19 months behind by the time they do their GCSEs. Just 1.1 per cent of pupils who complete their GCSEs in Alternative Provision achieve five good GCSE passes including English and maths. And the most disadvantaged students are almost four times less likely to go to university than the most advantaged students.

Our failure to build an infrastructure that works for all means we have a “Nightmare on Skills Street”, which stops people from building the skills they need to progress in life. More than a quarter (around nine million) of all working-age adults in England have low literacy and/or numeracy skills. And an enormous wave of lost opportunity is about to come crashing down on the next generation of employees: quite unbelievably, a third of England’s 16- to 19-year-olds have low basic skills. And all of this in an increasingly uncertain labour market where 28 per cent of jobs taken by young people could be at risk of automation by the 2030s.

We must change the way we view education

To spark a skills revolution and in turn improve social justice, we must first transform the way we view education. It is customary to talk about building ‘parity of esteem’ between technical and academic education.

But pursuing ‘parity of esteem’ reinforces the split that exists between them. It implies a division between the two routes when in fact, they should be seen as intertwined – two parts of the same system of self- improvement, and both equally well supported.

Education should be a continuum of learning. This means one train-line with a series of academic and technical stops; the ability to step back on and travel to other stations to build credits and reskill or upskill; all within a seamless infrastructure of opportunity. Only then will we build a system that meets all needs.

Getting the basics right

This starts with the basics. Literacy and numeracy are the bedrock of academic and vocational success. Without them, it is hard to build a skills-set that will unlock higher-value jobs. The Government is right to focus on standards and to do this early: its focus on phonics, for example, has had a significant impact on childhood literacy, with the proportion of six-year-olds passing the phonics check increasing from 58 per cent in 2012 to 81 per cent in 2017.

But we must go further. Just 54 per cent of children eligible for free school meals attain a good level of development by the time they
start primary school, compared with 71 per cent of children who are not eligible for free school meals. Good-quality childcare can help plug this gap. But many parents feel they cannot work because they struggle with affordable childcare – for example, 57 per cent of parents in lower income groups are put off from working, or working more hours, because of childcare costs. Meanwhile, we are giving major concessions to wealthier families.

The upper eligibility threshold for both 30 hours of free childcare (for children aged three and four) and tax-free childcare is £100,000 per parent. It is not justifiable to provide a couple earning £200,000 with 30 hours of free childcare, and tax-free childcare on top, when disadvantaged children need support. We should reduce the current thresholds and redirect funding to help disadvantaged parents with childcare support.

We also need to make sure that children finish secondary school with the basic skills they need to push on. Functional learning (for instance improving numeracy through financial education) should be integrated more strongly into the school curriculum.

And for individuals who are not naturally inclined towards academic study by the time they have sat their GCSEs, there must be another way. Rather than swallow valuable resources by insisting on (often unsuccessful) retakes for those who fail English and Maths, we should be embedding functional skills courses more heavily to get them up to scratch.

Creating more good-quality vocational options

Once they have basic skills in place, children are far better equipped to get on in life. But to do so, they must also have a meaningful choice of options that suits their natural talents – whether those are academic or vocational. Currently, this is not always the case.

The Government is starting to address this by creating more connectivity between academic and technical education through its post-16 Skills Plan. The Plan will produce a much smaller number of qualifications (T-levels) in 15 different clusters of skills. These qualifications will have a standard currency that the thousands of existing qualifications currently lack. And pupils will be able to move between technical and academic routes through bridging provisions.

But we can do much more. First, we must urgently capitalise on the enormous potential of apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships can change lives – they allow people to grow their skills, increasing employability and earning potential. But we need to be smarter about how we

use the new Apprenticeships Levy. According to the Open University, the underspend a year after the Levy’s introduction was almost £1.3 billion. And focusing on the target of three million starts risks compromising quality.

The Government should therefore introduce more flexibility in how the money can be used (for example in the supply chain), and use some of that underspend to help businesses offer higher starting wages and provide discounted travel for apprentices.

We must also be more creative about how we spend the existing £60 million support fund for disadvantaged apprentices. This is currently spent on incentivising providers. But some disadvantaged pupils are just not ready for work and face many complex challenges. They are not even at the foot of the ladder of opportunity. We need to help them get there so they can start apprenticeships and work their way up.

There are remarkable grassroots community groups that already do this well. Let’s allow these groups to bid for funding from this £60 million pot so that they can help young people overcome their challenges and start apprenticeships.

There is, however, no point in creating better vocational options if people do not know about them. And a continuum of learning must be one that is well informed. We also therefore need a world-class careers service.

At the moment, we do not have this: around one in five schools does not even meet any of the eight Gatsby benchmarks – a series of international markers of sound careers advice. We must transform careers advice into careers and skills advice. We must avoid duplication and redirect the many millions of pounds that support careers advice into a one-stop shop – a National Skills Service, with a UCAS for Further Education and Apprenticeships, and a careers skills passport as designed by Lord Young.

Looking after our most vulnerable students, rather than excluding them

A continuum of learning must also serve those with complex needs. School exclusions and use of Alternative Provision have skyrocketed in recent years, with 40 children permanently excluded every day. And it seems astonishing that we are disproportionately excluding pupils who are least equipped to deal with this: pupils with Special

Educational Needs (SEN) are around six times more likely to be permanently excluded. The destination prospects for excluded children in

Alternative Provision are dire – just 1.1 per cent of pupils who complete their GCSEs in Alternative Provision achieve five good GCSE passes including English and maths.

Given that we know pretty well the kind of children that are likely to be excluded – those with SEN and children in care, for example – it is clear that early intervention is the answer.

But to do this effectively, we need to make sure our mainstream teachers have the skills to support children with SEN. At the moment, only 55 per cent believe there is appropriate training to enable them to do this. And we must support and encourage mainstream teachers to spend time in Alternative Provision; the knowledge and skills they would acquire would be invaluable to mainstream schools and would help them manage more complex needs.

We also need much stronger rights for those pupils accessing Alternative Provision, and greater responsibility and accountability on the part of schools. A ‘Bill of Rights’ should be put in place for pupils and parents, entitling them to more information, a fairer exclusion process and better opportunity for reinstatement in mainstream education.

Parents and pupils should have a right to know how often schools resort to exclusion. But we need greater transparency. Current statistics do not account for the increase in hidden exclusions, with many children being ‘off-rolled’ – informally removed from the school registers. According to Ofsted, more than 19,000 pupils in Year 10 in 2016

did not progress to Year 11 in the same school in 2017. Around half of these did not reappear at another state-funded school. Ofsted has identified 300 schools with particularly high levels of off-rolling.

Schools should publish their permanent and fixed term exclusion rates every term, including for pupils with SEN and disabilities and looked-after children, as well as the number of pupils who leave the school.

The exclusion process is also weighted in favour of schools and leaves parents and pupils fighting a system that should be supporting them. They need someone in their corner – an independent advocate to offer advice to pupils facing exclusion for more than five non-consecutive days in a school year.

Accurate information about the range and type of Alternative Provision locally should also be easily accessible. All organisations offering Alternative Provision should be required to inform the local authority in which they are based of their provision. The local authority should then make the list of alternative providers available to schools and parents on their website.

Greater focus must also be placed on reinstating pupils into mainstream education. Independent review panels should be able to direct a school to re-enrol pupils: legislation should be amended at the next opportunity to make this happen.

Delivering a balanced higher education offer

We have become obsessed with full academic degrees in this country. But the labour market does not need an ever-growing supply of academic degrees. Between a fifth and a third of our graduates take non-graduate jobs, and the ‘graduate premium’ varies wildly according to subject and institution.

Instead, we need more balance in our higher-level offering so that there are pathways into intermediate and higher technical education.

There is enormous opportunity in this. There are skills shortages in several sectors. There is a strong need for intermediate skills. And there are millions of people who want to get on in life – preferably without a lead weight of £57,000 dragging from their feet.

Further education colleges, which are ideally placed to offer flexible and local options for those who need this, should therefore be better supported and incentivised to deliver intermediate and higher technical courses.

We can also be creative about blending technical and academic education. Degree apprenticeships are a remarkable example of a vehicle that does just that and could be the crown jewel in a revamped technical offering. They could make an important contribution to filling the nation’s skills gaps and solving the UK’s productivity puzzle. Russell Group universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, should rise to this challenge, up their game and rocket-boost degree apprenticeships.

Such students earn as they learn, do not incur mountains of debt, and get good-quality jobs at the end. I hope that one day, half of all university students are doing such courses. The Government should incentivise their growth and they could do this by drawing down on the Apprenticeships Levy.

However, this is not just an issue of supply. Few families are aware of degree apprenticeships, especially from disadvantaged families where the returns could be most profound. Both the existence of apprenticeships and their value should be hard-wired into careers advice. For individuals to make informed choices about university courses, we must also be transparent about the return they will bring.

Universities are an integral part of the machinery that feeds into the jobs market. It is reasonable to hold them to account for how well they prepare students for work. The blunt reality is that too many universities are not providing value for money and that students are not getting good outcomes from the degrees for which so many of them rack up debt.

While many of the most reputable universities deserve their recognition as elite institutions, others appear to trade well on their brands, while less reputable counterparts go unrecognised. Portsmouth University came top of the Economist’s ‘value-added’ university rankings, which compares graduates’ wages with what they would have been expected to earn if they had not gone to that university. Aston University came second in the same rankings.

These universities are putting rocket-boosters on the life chances of those who might otherwise have stagnated. So it is time for a broader measure of success. In future, the Teaching Excellence Framework will include data on graduate outcomes. I strongly welcome this and look forward to these playing a larger role in how universities are valued.

Too many institutions are neither meeting our skills needs, nor providing the means for the disadvantaged to climb the ladder of opportunity. We must think about access. The most disadvantaged students are still almost four times less likely to go to university as the most advantaged students, and they are also less likely to attend top universities.

One of the biggest problems, of course, is prior attainment. But it is also about a lack of effective outreach by our best universities. Over £800 million will be spent on widening access next year and we must make sure every penny is spent wisely to give disadvantaged pupils the kind of support their better-off peers get. Like, for example, private tuition. They could provide tuition to those who need it most – either through other organisations or by mobilising the thousands of students on their books, many of whom will be looking to give back or polish their own skills.

Making it easier to learn throughout life

To build a continuum of learning, we must also make it easy for people to learn flexibly throughout their lives. For those who are not able to build high-value skills the first time around, or whose skills have been wiped out by a fast-changing labour market, it is important that our system offers a way back. As Open University’s model clearly demonstrates, flexible learning can be a powerful vehicle for social justice. Its students are not required to have completed A-levels (or equivalent qualifications), and so prior achievement is not a hindrance to personal development. It is therefore able to reach some of the hardest niches within our system and is the primary provider of higher education in UK prisons and secure units. Its flexible online learning model also makes higher education possible for those who live in areas where there is no local university.

The mere idea of taking one penny away from the flexible/earn and learn sector, while continuing to prop up mediocrity in some of the traditional sector, is scandalous. Flexibility is a vital part of continuing learning. We need to protect the sector and we can start by ring-fencing the Part-Time Premium element of the Higher Education Funding Council’s Widening Participation funding allocation. It is also vital that we create clear routes from further education into higher education. These could be supported through ‘Next Step’ loans for individual higher education modules.

Levelling the playing field when it comes to social capital 

Creating a continuum of learning would dramatically improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged individuals in society. However, it would be a mistake just to focus on the more tangible structural elements of the system we want to build. Children and students also need social capital.

The absence of social capital is enormously damaging. It means that talent does not always lead to prosperity. Even when they get similar GCSEs and live in the same neighbourhood as other pupils, those on free school meals are 34 per cent more likely to drop out of post-16 education; 29 per cent less likely to study two or more facilitating A-levels; and 47 per cent less likely to attend a Russell Group university.

In some ways, social capital is the most important component of them all. Why? Because if they come from broken homes and cannot develop social capital elsewhere, pupils can have all the Rolls-Royce teaching in the world but are still likely to face colossal disadvantage.

Good schools can bring the ladder of opportunity to the feet of disadvantaged pupils. They are not just bastions of learning but also places of community.

It is vital that policymakers address this. Our most disadvantaged pupils could, for instance, build social capital by attending our best private schools – if only they could get to them. As Schools Week has highlighted, just one per cent of the 522,000 pupils in Independent Schools Council-member private schools receive full bursaries for their school fees (a proxy for the lowest income earners).

To retain charitable status (and all the perks this brings), private schools must surely do more to reach out to the most disadvantaged pupils. The Government should set up a ‘private school levy’ to encourage wealthier independent schools to bring in society’s most disadvantaged pupils, which might include students on free school meals, children in need or foster children. Private schools would be able to keep the money if they in turn invested in the futures of our most disadvantaged pupils.

We also need to look at how character is being built outside education. A lot has been said about children’s centres. But family hubs make more sense if we want to build social capital. They take the principle of children’s centres even further by providing support to the whole family, strengthening relationships, and improving parenting.

And they build hubs for children from every age group, including teenagers, when support is often needed most. A lot has also been said about the National Citizen Service (NCS). The sentiment behind the scheme is right. Building soft skills, resilience and character is fundamentally a good idea. But the NCS only lasts for four weeks. And it costs a lot more per place (£1,863) than other programmes, like a place in the Scouts, which costs £550 for four years.

We need to invest wisely, and we should explore whether the voluntary, charity and community sector could achieve more impact in disadvantaged local communities.


Good education is the high-speed train that propels social justice. But it needs a proper line – and a series of stops that lead to thriving, dynamic places of opportunity, rather than deserted platforms and decaying stations.

For that to happen, we must craft a more fluid and balanced system that fully embraces the immense qualities of technical education. We must build excellence all along the way. And we must make sure that nobody loses out simply because they do not have the same confidence, networks, soft skills or know-how.

I invite you to join me in driving this vital agenda forward. To root out social injustice in our education system. To give advantage to the disadvantaged. Until all individuals, whatever their background, can get the education, skills and training they deserve. And until everyone can achieve the jobs, security and prosperity they and our country need.

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Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow