UK Poverty 2017: Ladders of opportunity keynote speech by Robert Halfon MP

4th Dec 2017

At today's launch of our state of the nation report, UK Poverty 2017, the Chair of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon MP gave the keynote address.

I really welcome the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty 2017 report as it will play an important part in addressing social injustices in the UK. I would like to speak to you today specifically about the social injustice in our education system.

The trickle-down fallacy

The Conservative government of the 1980s turned this country around. Today we are more prosperous because it had the vision and conviction to set our markets free. And today the virtues that it championed are alive and well: aspiration, hard work, enterprise, independence, resilience.

But it did not get everything right. One of its mistakes was to assume that individual flourishing would flow automatically from economic buoyancy - that building economic capital would automatically mean social cohesion too.

We now know that not to be true. As David Cameron realised in his vision of the “big society”, for people to truly thrive they must pair economic freedom with social capital.

Today, we risk making a similarly simplistic assumption in our schools; that high standards alone can be an engine of individual prosperity; that success will trickle down to everybody if we just get standards right.

The truth is that, while high standards are vital, they are not sufficient alone – particularly for our most disadvantaged students who face many social injustices.

Today, I want to outline some of those injustices, before explaining why high standards must be accompanied by human capital and social capital.

I also want to promote a debate focused on solutions and offer a few ideas that could go some way in addressing the injustices in our education system. I hope that our committee and experts in the sector will be able to flesh them out in more detail.

Social injustice

First, the injustices.

While education is the best it has ever been, social injustice is still endemic in every part of our education system.

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 with 61 per cent of their better off peers.

A child living in one of England’s poorest areas is 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than a child living in its richest areas.

Children who are taught in alternative settings, rather than in mainstream education, have terrible prospects. Just 1.1 per cent of this group get five good GCSEs.

And in one recent intake, no pupil on free school meals from the entire North East of England went to Oxbridge.

The importance of high standards

To tackle these social injustices, high standards matter. For pupils to climb the ladder of opportunity, our education system needs to be rigorous.

And here we do very well.

We have a proud intellectual heritage in this country.

I also have a great deal of admiration for all the work the government has done to improve academic standards since taking the reins in 2010.

It has furnished our children’s education with more rigour, and it has built an infrastructure that propels our strong tradition of scholarship into the 21st century.

The evidence is clear to see:

  • We now have a system that actively encourages schools to innovate and raise their game. 1.8 million more children are in good or outstanding schools.
  • Exams are more challenging, which is raising our children’s skills levels so they can get good jobs and compete in a global skills race.
  • And we have some of the finest universities in the world. 

Human capital

But high standards alone won’t do the job. Disadvantaged pupils also need human capital and social capital. This is something that the Centre for Social Justice has recognised for over a decade.

Let me start with human capital – or skills capital, as I like to call it. This is about building the specific skills required to thrive in the jobs market.


We have ‘Nightmare on Skills Street’ in this country.

In December 2015, nearly a third of workers did not hold suitable qualifications for the jobs they were doing. And basic skills are inadequate - more than a quarter (around nine million) of all working aged adults in England have low literacy and/or numeracy skills.


All routes of learning should be open to every child.

But we must also be honest about the fact that many disadvantaged children take technical routes. And we need to fill our skills gaps and capitalise on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Both these facts expose an inevitable truth: technical education needs to be dramatically improved so that it carries the same prestige and opportunity as its academic cousin.

The government is starting to do this in its post-16 Skills Plan, which will produce a much smaller number of qualifications that employers recognise and value. And it has introduced the Apprenticeships Levy, which will double investment in apprenticeships to £2.5 billion by 2020.

But we can do so much more.


Apprenticeships work. 90 per cent of apprentices go on to a job or further education. We need more apprenticeships and we need them to go to the most disadvantaged students.

To do this, we should rethink how we spend the existing £60 million support fund for apprentices from the poorest areas. This currently goes to incentivise providers and we can be a lot smarter about how we use that money.

Some disadvantaged pupils are just not ready for work and face many complex challenges. They’re 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, steered by organisations like the Prince’s Trust, to bid for funding from this £60 million pot so that they can help young people overcome their challenges and start apprenticeships.

Alongside this, we need to transform careers advice into careers skills advice, avoid the duplication of the National Careers Service, Careers Enterprise Company and the like, and reallocate the many millions of pounds that go to careers and create a one stop shop of a National Skills Service, with a UCAS for FE and Apprenticeships, and a careers skills passport as designed by Lord Young.

Degree apprenticeships

Degree apprenticeships could be the crown jewel in a revamped system of technical education.

They have enormous value. Students earn as they learn, don’t incur mountains of debt, and get good quality jobs at the end.

Degree apprenticeships also help us meet our skills deficit, so they benefit society too.  We need to re-gear money into higher education to help combat social disadvantage and meet our country's skills needs.

I want to see more universities offering these apprenticeships. I hope that one day, half of all university students are doing them.

To fund more degree apprenticeships, we should increase and ring-fence funds from the Apprenticeships Levy. And we could do this by broadening the levy’s remit, so that employers with a salary roll of £2 million qualify.

Social capital

So far, I have explained why standards must be accompanied by skills capital.

But we can’t stop there.

Children and students also need social capital.

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

What exactly do I mean by social capital?

The OECD defines this as:

the links, shared values and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to work together.

As it points out:

access to information and influence through social networks confers private benefits on individuals.

Equality of educational opportunity can only get disadvantaged pupils so far. Prosperity is contingent on what people do with those opportunities, which in turn is shaped by social capital.


Disadvantaged pupils lack social capital because:

  1. They tend to face more challenges in their personal lives and ruptured relationships destroy social capital.
  2. Their lack of access to information and networks crowd out the opportunities they might have otherwise had.

Their absence of social capital is enormously damaging. It means that talent does not always lead to prosperity.

And this is reflected in the evidence. Even when they get similar GCSEs and live in the same neighbourhood as non-FSM pupils, FSM students are:

  1. 34 per cent more likely to drop out of post-16 education.
  2. 29 per cent less likely to study two or more facilitating A-levels.
  3. 47 per cent less likely to attend a Russell Group university.

Graduates from richer backgrounds also earn more than their poorer counterparts, even when they have the same degrees from the same universities.


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 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.

So we must do more.

Free early years/childcare for foster carers

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 £150 million, 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.

Private schools/charitable status

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 1 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, which may include FSM students, Children in Need or foster children.

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.

Just imagine: for disadvantaged pupils, a private schools’ levy could unlock not only quality education, but also allow the skills capital and social capital that must accompany this. 


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 and will make a real difference to the social capital in those 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. This is, of course, good news. 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.

Like 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.

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

Outside education

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. 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, interlocking foundations of educational success.

Remove one, and the rest come tumbling down.

Before introducing any new educational reform, as the rightly Government works to increase academic capital, it should make sure it boosts skills capital and social capital alongside.

So, 30 hours a week of child care 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.  

To root out social injustice in our education system.

To give advantage to the disadvantaged.

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, they and our country need.