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Speech in the debate on the Social Mobility Commission Report

I join hon. and right hon. Members from all parties in the House in paying tribute to PC Keith Palmer, who gave his life to protect us, this place and all that it represents.

 

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) and the right hon. Members for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) on securing the debate. My hon. Friend talked about Government policy, and about the idea of picking the few who would go from the council house to the Cabinet. Today might not be a day for humour, but the tale I tell is that I grew up in a damp two-bedroom council flat in Manchester, and since I became an MP I have lived in a one-bedroom ex-council flat in Westminster, so for some people the trajectory is downhill. I am one of the few in this place who can say that.

Yesterday, while democracy was being attacked, the Labour party members in Manchester, Gorton were selecting as their candidate another council house kid. He was orphaned out of Pakistan, grew up in abject poverty and worked as a labourer. After attending night school, he became a police officer and a solicitor, and he ran his own practice. I wish Afzal Khan all the very best over the next few weeks as we approach the election.

 

The “State of the Nation” report by the Government’s Social Mobility Commission explained the scale of the challenge we face in improving social mobility in Britain today. It told us in no uncertain terms:

 

“Britain has a deep social mobility problem.”

 

It identified

 

“four fundamental barriers that are holding back a whole tranche of low- and middle-income families and communities in England: an unfair education system, a two-tier labour market, an imbalanced economy and an unaffordable housing market.”

 

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke eloquently about that. To say the least, the Government—and the Minister, who has been sent to defend the policies that have led us to this point—have their work cut out for them.

 

The “State of the Nation” report presented the Government with a number of proposals on parenting and early years, schools, post-16 education, jobs and housing, but there is no evidence so far that the Government have listened to the proposals. That is why our debate today is so important.

 

For instance, the report calls on Government to

 

“set a clear objective for early years services that by 2025 every child is school-ready at five and the child development gap has been closed”.

 

As a former teacher, I know that nursery teachers can predict with 95% accuracy what exam results the children in their care will attain at key stage 1, key stage 2 and key stage 3. The report also recommended that the Government provide

 

“high-quality childcare to low-income families.”

 

The Department for Education has given no indication that it will adopt these plans. In fact, its policies could do exactly the opposite. The Minister probably needs to tell us why the Government are not directing resources towards those who need them the most. The Department will spend about £1 billion a year on a policy of so-called tax-free childcare, which will be of the greatest benefit to those who have £10,000 to spend on childcare. I will give way right now to any Member in the House if they know a low-income family who have £10,000 to spend on childcare.

 

I hope that the Minister will also tell us what the 30 hours of free childcare will actually mean for the tens of thousands of low-income families who, under the eligibility criteria, are not actually eligible for the extra childcare. As the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam eloquently put it, this policy is in considerable trouble at the moment. After all, while I am sure the Minister is growing tired of being reminded of promises in his manifesto that are being broken, the pledge was clear: the Conservative manifesto promised that his party would

 

“give working parents of 3 and 4-year-olds 30 hours of free childcare”.

 

This is not just about quantity, but about quality, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

 

Our maintained nurseries are under attack, with the future of many of them in doubt in the next weeks and months. Labour Members know the immense importance of early years intervention to improve the life chances of children in Britain. That is why the Labour Government opened over 3,000 Sure Start centres, and increased education spending in every year that we were in Government. This Government just need to follow that example.

 

There are a number of recommendations on schools in the report, and I will briefly address them. The right hon. Member for Loughborough said that education is the key driver of social mobility. She is a one nation Conservative. Disraeli said the same on the steps of Manchester town hall in 1872, so, a century and a half later, I am looking for a one nation in terms of social mobility.

 

First and foremost, the commission made it clear that the Department’s flagship vanity project to expand academic selection is wrong. It said:

 

“We recommend that the Government rethinks its plans for more grammar schools”.

 

I know the Minister has been told time and again to rethink these plans. He will come back to the Dispatch Box in a few minutes and say that children on free school meals in grammar schools have a better chance of getting to a Russell Group university, but it is a false statistic. The sample of children on free school meals in grammar schools is so small that it makes nonsense of the statistics. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden pointed out, 2.6% of children in grammar schools are on free school meals, compared with 14% of children nationally.

 

We have heard a great deal about the White Paper that we expect to see in the coming weeks. We want the Minister to commit to basing it not on dogma, but on evidence, and we want him to abandon the discredited policy of selection. The Chancellor has made an announcement about a lot of money for grammar schools, but it seems that there is none for school budgets. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) talked about the buckets used when it rains. I trained as a teacher in the late 1990s, and I remember going round with buckets. However, by the time Labour left office, schools had been rebuilt and roofs had been repaired, while the only thing going through the roofs were standards.

 

Cuts to school budgets will make it almost impossible to deliver on the many recommendations, so we need to think about the £3 billion that is currently going to be cut from school budgets across this country during the next few years. Let us not pursue the divisive policy of selection; let us fund education properly and come together on improving mobility. Government is about choice, so let us make the right choices.

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