Poor children ‘systematically’ failed from nursery to secondary school, social mobility tsar warns

It is a “moral outrage” that the education system “systematically fails” the poorest children in the country at every level from early years onwards, the country’s social mobility tsar has said.

Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, has told a House of Lords committee that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are losing out from nursery right through to primary and secondary level.

As a consequence, many were not prepared for vocational Level 3 [A-level equivalent] qualifications that would set them up for the world of work, he said.

Mr Milburn was speaking yesterday as he gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility, which is investigating the phenomenon of the “missing middle” – the school leavers who are neither likely to be Neet [not in education, employment or training] or to go to university.

Experts have previously raised concerns that government policies focusing principally on apprenticeships and higher education have left vast numbers of 16-19-year-olds – who are unable to access either – without the opportunities that would help them into the workplace.

Mr Milburn told the committee: “At every level [the poorest children] are underserved, if we are honest, by the education system.

“So…the poorest kids in society, by the age of five, half are not at the appropriate level of development.

“So they are not school-ready, and school-ready is pretty basic…”

He said that he did not believe early years services saw it “as their mission” to prepare children for school, because government had sent them conflicting messages – one about their role in raising the numbers of working mothers, and another about encouraging child development.

This failure, he added, was compounded by failures in primary school, where a third of free-school-meals children did not reach the expected level in reading, writing and maths.

At secondary, he added, only one in three free-school-meals-children gets five GCSEs at A* to C – despite “herculean efforts and some progress”.

Mr Milburn said: “I think it’s not just a national scandal, it’s a moral outrage that we’ve allowed the education system to systematically fail the poorest children in the country. It just isn’t good enough.”

He said that some such children could not progress from Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) vocational qualifications to Level 3 and 4 unless something was done “earlier in the system”.

“That has to be the mission in life for the education system,” he said.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which was set up to monitor government progress on these issues, has released a series of reports examining the barriers to social mobility in the UK.

Its annual report is expected later this month.

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