Seeking social justice in our education system

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Education must offer a ladder of opportunity for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, says Robert Halfon, chair of the education committee and Conservative MP for Harlow

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Social justice, improving outcomes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, should be at the heart of our educational system. Yet, as I stated recently at the launch of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s state of the nation report, UK Poverty 2017, the sad truth is that social injustice is still endemic in our education system.

In many ways, our education system is the best it has ever been, with higher standards achieved in our schools, nurseries, and in our childcare settings. This is testimony to the actions of recent governments and of the dedication and professionalism of teachers and childcare workers who are delivering excellent results for their children and young people.

But while standards are vital, they are not sufficient when those from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to face significant obstacles in accessing and capitalising on the opportunities more affluent people take for granted. If we are going to remedy the injustices in our educational system, high standards must be accompanied by boosting human and social capital, giving those from disadvantaged backgrounds real, meaningful and productive access to skills, information and social networks so they can thrive.

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY

Central to this must be ensuring that all people, regardless of background, have access to quality education. Early years education is crucial. We should be moving to a less complex system of childcare subsidies so families can claim the support available and we need greater efforts to ensure genuinely affordable and high quality childcare in the most disadvantaged areas.

The Government deserves credit for pushing ahead with the 30 hours. This was a bold and welcome commitment to help working people, and help thousands more parents who want to return to work to do so. There have been some well-documented issues with the introduction of this policy, but it is already providing welcome relief to parents across the country with their childcare costs.

However, the exclusion of fostered children from the additional 15 hours of free childcare was unacceptable. Following pressure from Education Committee members, fostering charities and others, I welcome the Government’s commitment to finally extend the entitlement to children in foster care. This opportunity to access good-quality education will make a huge difference to foster children and it is right that all young people are able to benefit from the same opportunities. As a Committee, we urge the Government to look carefully at how children in foster care will access the highest quality childcare.

Looking more broadly, I think in time there is a case to reduce the generous earnings cap for the 30 hours of free childcare that is available for three- and four-year-olds. We could channel this money to allow non-working parents to access this additional childcare; in many cases it is their children who are in greater need and who would benefit most from having access to additional good-quality childcare.

Foster carers have a really important role in society and are often providing fantastic care in sometimes difficult circumstances. But our fostering inquiry showed too many are not adequately supported, neither financially nor professionally, in the vital work that they do.

Our report called for ministers to show they truly value foster carers by establishing a national college, which would work towards improving working conditions for carers, provide a resource for training and support and give them a national voice and representation. It is only right these hugely committed carers are given the support they need to help improve the lives of the young people in their care.

If we are looking to build social capital, which I believe we must if we are serious about tackling the social injustices in our education system, we should look at how character is built outside education. Family hubs can play a valuable role, taking the principle of Children’s Centres further by providing support to the whole family, strengthening relationships and improving parenting. These are also crucial because they build hubs for children in every age group, including for teenagers, at a time when support is often needed most and when it can have a big impact on young people’s future life choices.

Social justice, improving outcomes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, should be at the heart of our educational system. Education should offer a ladder of opportunity which gives everyone the chance to progress and access education, from early years through to adult education.

High standards, skills capital and social capital are the sturdy, interlocking foundations of educational success. Thirty hours a week of childcare for foster children and good-quality childcare and early years education should have a role in building these foundations and helping ensure children can go on to get the education, skills, training and life opportunities they deserve.

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