Robert Halfon: Why education must be an opportunity for all on the ladder to future success

GOOD schools can bring the ladder of opportunity to the feet of disadvantaged pupils.

Education must be a ladder of opportunity for all, argues Robert Halfon MP.

They are not just bastions of learning but also places of community.

It is simply wrong that people who have the same aptitude and work ethic as their better-off peers are not converting that ability into similar successes. All because they do not have the same confidence, networks, soft-skills or know-how. That is not social justice; that’s a recipe for inertia.

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So we must do more. First, we could help foster parents. The exclusion of fostered children from the additional 15 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds in England is indefensible.

Foster carers raise some of society’s most vulnerable children, many of whom would benefit from high quality childcare which would help boost social development.

We could pay for this by reducing the generous threshold that exists for parents to claim tax-free childcare, a subsidy that does not capture society’s most disadvantaged families. For instance, by dropping the eligibility cap to £65,000 from the exiting £100,000 mark, we could free up £150m, which would easily cover the additional outlay.

In time, we should also reduce the similarly generous earnings cap for the 30 hours of free childcare that is available for three and four-year-olds. And we should channel this to non-working parents, whose children need it more.

Our most disadvantaged pupils could also build social capital by attending our best private schools – if only they could get to these schools. As Schools Week has highlighted, just one per cent of the 522,000 pupils in private schools receive full bursaries for their school fees – a proxy for the lowest income earners.

The current social contract between government and private schools is clearly not working.

The Government should radically redefine its relationship with them. It should set up a private schools’ levy for to encourage the wealthier private schools to bring in society’s most disadvantaged pupils.

A levy is not a tax and schools would be able to reclaim their investment if they in turn invested in the futures of our most disadvantaged pupils.

It seems astonishing that 35 children are excluded from school every day, and the destination prospects for excluded children in alternative provision are so dire. Given that we know pretty well the kind of children that are likely to be excluded – children in care for example – it is clear that early intervention is the answer.

But, another way to make a difference is for the Government to support charities like The Difference, recruiting teachers to work in alternative provision, to be trained to look after the most vulnerable children, and then placing them in mainstream schools in senior positions for career development. Their knowledge and expertise will be invaluable to mainstream schools.

My committee is currently doing an inquiry on alternative provision so we will be looking at this issue in further detail in the near future.

Universities, too, can play their part.

We constantly boast how proud we are that more disadvantaged pupils are going to university than ever before. But they are also less likely to attend top universities; more likely to drop out of university; and more likely to get lower qualifications than their wealthier peers.

One of the biggest problems, of course, is prior attainment. But it is also about a lack of effective outreach by our best universities. Universities should rethink how they are spending their access budgets so that they give disadvantaged pupils the kind of support their better-off peers get.

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. And universities must also make sure that disadvantaged students have the pastoral support they need to stay at university and achieve their full potential.

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. They do this 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. 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 at 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 local communities.

High standards, skills capital and social capital are the sturdy, inter-locking foundations of educational success. Remove one, and the rest come tumbling down. Before introducing any new educational reform, as the Government works to increase academic capital, it should make sure it boosts skills capital and social capital alongside.

So, 30 hours a week of childcare for foster care children, an innovative scheme to train and incentivise teachers for the most vulnerable pupils, a private school levy for poorer children, funds targeted carefully to help the most disadvantaged learn new skills and finally, rocket boosting degree apprenticeships to transform higher education, are all designed to increase social and skills capital.

We must not stop until everyone, whatever their background, can climb the ladder of opportunity to get the education, skills and training they deserve to achieve the jobs, security and prosperity that they and our country need.

Robert Halfon is a Conservative MP and chairman of the Education Select Committee. He spoke at this week’s launch of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s state of the nation report UK Poverty 2017. This is an extract.