Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Since 2010, the Conservative Government has made remarkable improvements to education in our country, against the odds and with huge opposition. Nick Gibb’s support for phonics has led to England rising in the PIRLS league table – 154,000 more six-year-olds were on track to be fluent readers this year than in 2012. Just last week, Justine Greening launched plans to put social mobility at the heart of education policy, with five core ambitions to remove the obstacles that stop people from achieving their potential.
Our education system is the best it has ever been; 1.9 million more children are now in good or outstanding schools. However, social injustice is still endemic. Around 195,000 children use government-funded childcare in settings that are less than good. Just 33 per cent of pupils on free school meals get five good GCSEs, compared to 61 per cent of better-off students. 12.6 million adults lack basic digital skills. The Government is increasing academic capital, but there is more to do to ensure every child can climb the ladder of opportunity; high standards must be accompanied by human capital and social capital.
Human capital – or skills capital – builds the skills required to thrive in the jobs market. Social capital is the access to strong support, information, networks and influence that allow people to make make the most of the opportunities available to them.
So family hubs, extra childcare for foster children, early intervention for excluded pupils, making it easier for disadvantaged pupils to attend the best schools and rocket-boosting traineeships and apprenticeships are all ways we can boost social capital and human capital:
1) Look at opportunities to build social capital outside of education through, for example, Family Hubs which take the principle of Children’s Centres further and provide support to the whole family, strengthening relationships and improving parenting.
2) Provide 30 hours a week of free childcare to foster children, to boost the social development of some of society’s most vulnerable children, many of whom would benefit from quality childcare. This could be funded by reducing the generous upper limit on the income of those claiming claim tax-free childcare from £100,000 to £65,000.
3) Rethink early intervention for excluded children. We know the kind of children likely to be excluded – for example, those in care – and we can help them by supporting charities like The Difference, which recruits teachers into alternative provision, later placing them in mainstream schools in senior positions for career development. Excluded children benefit from their knowledge and expertise.
4) Help the most disadvantaged pupils attend our best private schools. A private schools levy, encouraging the wealthier private schools to bring in society’s most disadvantaged pupils, could unlock quality education and build the skills capital and social capital that must accompany this. 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, as businesses do under the Apprenticeships Levy.
5) Work with organisations like the Prince’s Trust, using existing funds to help disadvantaged young people to overcome barriers and start apprenticeships. In addition, increasing and ring-fencing funds from the Apprenticeships Levy to incentivise universities to offer degree apprenticeships so that they are the crown jewel in a revamped system of technical education.
High standards, skills capital and social capital are the interlocking foundations of prosperity. Remove one, and the rest come tumbling down. Alongside reforming education, the Government should root out social injustice and give advantage to the disadvantaged. This would mean everyone, whatever their background, could climb the ladder of opportunity – to get the education, skills and training they deserve, and to achieve the jobs, security and prosperity, they and our country need.