30 hours policy 'entrenches inequality' says social mobility watchdog

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The Government should extend its 30 hours offer to those working eight hours per week and eventually to all unemployed parents, the Social Mobility Commission said today.

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Dame Martina Milburn

The policy ‘risks entrenching educational inequality’ and more parents should be able to access it, the commission said in a new report.

Chair Martina Milburn said the panel wanted to 'look at' extending the policy to the unemployed in the long term but hadn't recommended this because, ‘we are looking at recommendations which we want people to take up and which are achievable.’

The report says, ‘There is a clear social mobility case for extending the [30 hours] offer to more families. The most disadvantaged children in the system who stand to gain the most from additional professional contact time are losing out because they are either not eligible ...or their parents are not aware that they are.’

It adds, ‘The policy is compounded by the fact that the government funding received to cover the 30-hour places does not fully cover the cost to providers’ with settings passing on the cost of extras to parents.’

Speaking today, Dame Martina said social mobility across the country had actually ‘stagnated’ over the past four years, adding ‘being born disadvantaged in the UK means there is every chance you will stay disadvantaged. The attainment gap which you can count at five or six just gets wider as you go through school. By the time you get to 19 you have 16 per cent of young people on free school meals who get two A level passes compared with 39 per cent of the general school population.’

She added, ‘Government can’t fix this on their own. We are calling on business, schools, universities and certainly on government – all of us – to shift the dial.’

She added that, ‘at a time when our country needs to be productive, nimble and innovative we need to maximise the talent of everybody - not just the few.’

This is the Social Mobility Commission’s first report since 2017, when its former members resigned, saying the Government was too focused on Brexit to concentrate on it. This was despite Prime Minister Theresa May declaring on entering Downing Street in 2016 she would tackle the 'burning injustice' of social inequality.

Commissioners have also called for action on children’s centres, though stopped short of calling for further investment. They want the government to ‘complete its review of children’s centres as soon as is practicable’ and then ensure that investment in the home learning environment reaches disadvantaged and vulnerable families.

Dame Martina told Nursery World, ‘We just think they should do their review; I think they will find too many have shut. We are concerned about the numbers that have closed.’

Commissioner Farrah Storr, editor-in-chief of women’s magazine Elle, said the commission had also focused on the lack of investment in the early years workforce, with more research promised at a later date on this topic. She said, ‘In the early years workforce, you have to get better talent - you have to make sure the parents' first interaction with formal education is brilliant as it can be.’

In response to questions about how much real power the commission will have over government, Dame Martina said she ‘got the sense ministers will be supportive and that the money will be there to support them’.

She added  ‘I think for a long time social mobility has been the poor relation. We might be very naïve but we are determined to change that.’

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