Bishop of Durham stresses need for continued focus on child poverty

Bp Durham June 2015 bOn 20th December 2016,  Baroness Corston moved “that the House take note of the Report from the Social Mobility Committee (Session 2015-16, HL Paper 120)”. The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, spoke in the debate, to welcome the report and highlight the continued importance of a focus on child poverty. 

The Lord Bishop of Durham My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, for tabling this important debate and for her and her committee’s work, which has produced such a helpful and clear report. I also look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Corriegarth.

The findings of the report are of particular importance to those of us in the north-east. According to the Growing Up North project, 4% of young people leaving school in London go on to an apprenticeship whereas the figure is 11% in the north-east. The inequality in provision between academic and vocational routes compounds the inequalities between the north and south of England. Therefore, the current problems with the system are not only failing individual young people but, in some instances, they are failing particular communities. It is with the young people of my diocese and region in mind that I welcome the solutions offered in the report.

There is a profound need to respond to the call for a more coherent approach to vocational training. The Government should bring together employers, colleges, schools and independent learning providers. In particular, I welcome the proposal to move the transition period to 14-19. I also wish to highlight the need for major improvements in careers advice which covers vocational routes. The report underlines the importance of implementing the proposals in the post-16 skills plan and the Technical and Further Education Bill to do just that.

Here we must pay tribute to the crucial contribution of further education colleges in offering the “missing middle”, on which the report focuses, the chances that they need to obtain qualifications of real value. These institutions deserve our thanks and they need greater support.

The Government can rightly highlight the progress that has been made. That more than 1.4 million more pupils attend schools that are rated “good” or “outstanding” than in 2010 should be celebrated. However, while quality schooling is important, we risk overplaying its role in social mobility. As Growing Up North highlights, the north-east consistently has among the best primary school results in the country, but the lowest average adult incomes. According to the IPPR’s The State of the North report, there are only 0.69 jobs per working-age resident in the north-eastern region in contrast to 0.86 in Cheshire and Warrington. The success of a coherent route into work is dependent on the availability of well-paid, meaningful work.

This leads me to highlight that while education is important, it is not the most important factor in relation to social mobility. A 2010 study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that educational deficits emerge early in children’s lives, even before entry into school, and that they widen throughout childhood. Even by the age of three there is a considerable gap in cognitive test scores between children in the poorest fifth of the population compared with those from better-off backgrounds, and this gap gets wider as children enter and move through the schooling system. Likewise, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England highlights that by,

“the end of secondary school, disadvantaged children are on average 19 months behind their peers”.

Child poverty is critical in relation to social mobility, so the removal of “child poverty” from the name of the Social Mobility Commission is indicative of a worrying trend which is only exacerbated by today’s news of the closure of the Child Poverty Unit and the apparent abandonment of the life chances strategy. This appears to confirm a focus on the “just about managing” and “the middle”, as in this report, to the exclusion of those who are the poorest and who deserve our most important attention and help. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that news. The report itself scarcely mentions the word “poverty”. What mentions there are focus on how poverty can be the result of a bad transition from school to work and how jobs provide a way out of poverty. Insufficient attention is paid to the impact of child poverty on the transition from education to work and social mobility more widely. This trend is alarming for two reasons. First, because poverty must remain a priority, and secondly, because excluding poverty from our social mobility agenda is self-defeating.

As admirable a goal as social mobility is, it should not be used to crowd out child poverty as a policy objective. If our policy is entirely shaped by concerns around social mobility and life chances, then the society we are aiming towards is one which is unconcerned with the presence of poverty itself, but just wants to make sure the poor deserve to be poor.

Secondly, a renewed focus on social mobility requires a renewed focus on child poverty. Social mobility, even of those in the middle who are the focus of the report, is shaped profoundly by economic factors. The committee’s report notes the impact of informal recruitment practices on social mobility, but we must also note the impact of a parent working several jobs and being unable to help with applications, the impact of the anxiety caused by seeing a parent struggling to make ends meet, and the myriad other ways that poverty impedes social mobility. One of the most pernicious ways is its effect on aspiration. As experience shapes a child’s imagination, growing up in poverty robs children of the capacity to imagine themselves improving their circumstances—all too often leaving the impression of poverty as being inevitable or a particular profession unattainable. We need to help with aspiration levels.

An integrated strategy for vocational routes into work must be part of an integrated strategy for the flourishing of young people and be alive to the impact of poverty on all aspects of a child’s life chances. To the extent that the importance of the world outside the classroom is ignored, any attempt to improve the options available within it will ultimately fail. British young people do not deserve a system in which “vocational” is the code word for “non-academic”. Particularly for those in my line of work, the word “vocation” is one charged with rich meaning. This report points some of the way towards a system that is more worthy of that word.

I have some final thoughts. Social mobility by definition tends to suggest that an upward social trajectory is the right and best one for everyone. I actually have two concerns about this. The first is that we can have greater upward mobility for those near the bottom only if there is some equal and corresponding increase in downward mobility among those near the top. If the rich and powerful, which of course includes all of us, do all they can to protect and pass on their privileged positions, this can be as much a barrier to social mobility as a lack of education or opportunity for those in poverty. So downward mobility is not just sometimes desirable, it is also necessary in a more socially mobile society.

My second concern is this. Jesus himself encouraged his followers not to seek upward mobility but rather the way of service. Foot washing was to be the example and not a practice to be avoided or frowned on. In all our pursuit of ensuring that whatever start in life a person has they do have equal life chances, let us not lose sight of the fact that some social mobility downwards is good for us all. We are holding this debate just before Christmas when, let us not forget, we celebrate the God who chose downward mobility as the way to save humanity.

Viscount Younger of Leckie (Minister) [extract]:  …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham raised the important issue of social mobility linking to child poverty. I noted his thoughtful and interesting comments on the theme of downward mobility. Disadvantage is central to social mobility. We know that many of the poorest children and young people do not achieve their potential in our schools, and they too often do not have access to the wider opportunities and experiences that they need to succeed. One of the most important actions to tackle child poverty is to ensure that the next generation is better equipped with the knowledge and skills, advice and experiences to succeed. That is how we see our efforts to improve social mobility.

Secondly, responsibility for careers provision for young people and adults has been brought together under a single responsible Minister. As the committee rightly highlighted in its report, this will give us an opportunity to bring greater coherence to careers advice—a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham.

The Lord Bishop of Durham Perhaps I may intervene briefly. I specifically asked about the news that leaked out yesterday concerning the Child Poverty Unit and the life chances strategy. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, also referred to the Child Poverty Unit.

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