When Michael Gove became Education Secretary in 2010, he was clear that all the Coalition’s education reforms would be judged against two things. The first was raising Britain’s attainment, which had fallen far behind other leading countries. The second was narrowing the gap between rich and poor. This gap was not a new thing, but little progress had been made under the previous government.
There is a significant wage premium for having grown up in a better-off family. That’s true across much of the developed world, but even more so in this country. In 2010, just 16% of students at Russell Group universities were from the bottom 50% of families by income. Even at the start of primary school, twice as many children were ‘school-ready’ in the top income group as in the bottom group.
Closing the gap can’t be done overnight. But important progress has been made. The Pupil Premium was a crucial early structural funding reform, so extra funding follows pupils who need extra attention. And the Early Years Pupil Premium now does likewise for pre-schoolers.
The English Baccalaureate is helping to steer youngsters to the GCSEs that keep their options most open, and that universities and employers value. A large number of lower-value courses have been swept away and there is renewed emphasis on maths and English, which have the highest workplace value among subjects.
Since 2010 the number of children in workless households has fallen by 290,000.
Two of the roles in Parliament I have found most rewarding were my time serving on the Education Select Committee, and my two years chairing the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Social Moblility.
In the former role, I was there to help hold the government to account on education on behalf of parents and children in East Hampshire. We are lucky to have excellent schools and colleges locally and highly dedicated teachers.
With the APPG, I was able to work with MPs and Peers from across the political spectrum with a motivating interest in helping to close the opportunity gap between rich and poor. The government recognised the central role of education and the early years in the Child Poverty Strategy and I also welcomed the appointment of an independent Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission to measure progress and be a challenging alternative voice. On the APPG, I initiated a project to establish what we could agree about across the political divide; the result was our report Seven 7 Key Truths about Social Mobility. We looked at the growing gap between London and the rest of the country (London used to have the worst results in England; now it has the best) in Capital Mobility. Most recently, the group looked at the key role of Character and Resilience in young people: every bit as important as GCSEs. That project identified the key 'character' traits in young people as the development of mental toughness, application, delayed gratification and self-control, or:
- Believe you can achieve
- Understand the relationship between effort and (sometimes distant or uncertain) reward
- Stick with the task at hand
- Bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks
These traits or ‘skills’ can help in multiple ways throughout life, in and out of the workplace, and they also overlap significantly with the so-called employability skills that firms value highly.
I am very pleased that the Government has taken a number of the APPG’s recommendations on board, indicated by the Department of Education’s allocation of £5 million to dramatically enhance the role of ‘character education’ alongside academic learning, with the ambition to make Britain a world leader in this field. There are many schools in East Hampshire who offer pupils great character building opportunities such as the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, and through volunteering programmes and competitive sports; and out-of-school groups like the Scouts, who do an outstanding job. This fund will hopefully be used to develop schemes which are already doing great work in this field, both in East Hampshire and nationwide, and create exciting new projects.