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The education system should provide a ladder of opportunity for all our children

4 min read

We need to root out social injustice so that every child can climb the ladder of opportunity, writes Education Select Committee chair Rob Halfon

Our committee has two clear aims – to address social injustice in education across our country and to boost our skills and productivity. We are passionate in ensuring an educational and skills ladder of opportunity for all our children so they can go on to achieve job security and prosperity for themselves and their families.

What does this mean in practice? It means ensuring that foster children have quality care and that foster carers are recognised for the work they do. Our fostering report tackled this issue head-on, calling for better conditions for carers, and for foster children to have a bigger say in their futures.

This is about social justice. When 40 children are excluded every day from our schools we must recognise that something is going deeply wrong in our education system. Exclusion should only ever be a last resort and schools should do more to support pupils so that they can avoid a situation where they are kicked out of school.

At root, this is a social justice issue and it is vital that we make it a priority to improve the outcomes for those in alternative provision (in settings such as pupil referral units) and make a meaningful impact on boosting their life chances.

This is not just about those formally removed from school. Many young people are being informally excluded and not appearing on the rolls of another state school. Around 300 schools are being investigated by Ofsted for this illegal practice. Our report recommended schools be made properly accountable for pupils who have been excluded, that there is greater transparency, so we know how many are excluded, and that better training is available for children in alternative provision.

On skills, the truth is that as a nation we are far behind many other European countries. According to a study by the OECD, our 16- to 24-year-olds have lower literacy and numeracy skills than their peers in almost all other member countries. The UK has some of the best universities in the world, and yet we are way behind in international league tables on skills.

That is why the Education Committee believes strongly in moving to a more vocational education system. The issue of how we improve the quality of apprenticeships and ensure those from disadvantaged backgrounds get the training they need has been the subject of a recent inquiry.

The committee is investigating the role of universities and FE colleges in our education and skills system. Should we consider an elite university as one that is in the Russell Group? Or, rather, that a top university is one that not only provides a first-class education, but goes further to ensure it is accessible to those from disadvantaged backgrounds and provides good job prospects?

In our upcoming inquiry into the fourth industrial revolution, we will look at the march of the robots. Analysis suggests that up to a third of jobs for young people could be at risk of automation by 2030. What does our education system need to look like to provide the skills required for Britain’s future economy? It is essential we prepare our current and future workforce for these new challenges.

While we are committed to improving skills and productivity, the reality is that none of this will be possible unless we have a proper funding regime for education. If the NHS can have a 10-year plan and a funding settlement of £20bn a year, why can’t education have a 10-year plan too? Our inquiry into school and college funding will make the case for a 10-year plan and proper funding. It will also examine the arguments for a ratcheting up of further education funding which has been a pauper in terms of funding in recent years.

The Education Committee is dedicated to ensuring there is a ladder of opportunity for our young people. The government must focus on more than just improving standards. There appears to be a belief in some parts of our society and education system that a focus on academic capital is the be-all-and-end-all, that it will have a trickle-down effect which ensures a rising tide for all pupils.

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