Adam Afriyie sets out why Conservatives must rekindle social mobility for those who need it most
If you work hard then you should reap the rewards. This simple desire is at the heart of what it means to be a Conservative. We want a society and an economy in which the cards are stacked in favour of everybody who chooses to work hard so they stand the best chance of enjoying the rewards of their efforts for themselves and their families.
We celebrate success and particularly for those from less privileged upbringings. People might say that I came from a classically disadvantaged background, having been brought up by my mother in social housing in South London. Yet I was one of the few fortunate enough to get an education and earn enough as an entrepreneur to provide a comfortable life for my family. This should not be a one-off story; it should be commonplace. What drove me into politics remains my guiding objective: everyone, regardless of background, should have the opportunity to make their way from tough beginnings to the top. The Conservative Party must remove any remaining obstacles to success.
We should care about children in care
First, kids in care homes. Where children are brought up by state institutions, we have a moral duty to ensure these systems work as well as possible. There are almost 100,000 young people currently in the UK’s ‘care’ system. The statistics demonstrate what we intuitively fear: children in care are much more likely to end up in prison, on drugs or living on the streets.
Despite the best efforts of selfless care workers, who invest time and emotions into helping the best they can, our creaking care system is not working well enough. It is to our shame that so many children, through no fault of their own, end up in a system that fails them. It allows us to feel like we are doing something without looking at the results.
So here’s my simple proposal: let’s fund bursaries for these vulnerable children to attend top-quality boarding schools.
I know the instinctive reaction: this isn’t affordable. But that’s simply not true. While it costs an eye-watering £150,000 to care for a child in a children’s home, it might cost around £10,000 to enrol a child in a state boarding school or perhaps £30,000 at an independent school.
Schemes such as the Royal National Children’s Foundation, have been transforming the lives of vulnerable children by doing just that. Within three years, the majority of children on these schemes reach the same academic level as their peers, and almost 40% become ‘star pupils’. They also gain the self-esteem and social skills that all children need to put themselves on the path to success.
Identifying strengths at school
School should nurture difference, rather than enforcing a conformity that brings out the best in some, but not all pupils.
The first step is to introduce sets based on ability. Not just for core subjects, but for as many subjects as possible. This will help children to know their strengths and areas that they might need to work on. If all subjects are setted, then everyone will identify at least one or two areas where they perform better than the average. Setting allows children of mixed abilities to socialise within the same school, but vitally it will push the most talented youngsters and provide extra support for those who need it.
The second step is to give children practical experience of non-academic vocations at school. I might never have amounted to much without the passion for business that was instilled in me through Young Enterprise at school. Children, whose skills might lie in construction, caring or cooking, should dip their toe in the water to see what works for them.
Of course, it is vital that schools give their students the core numerical and reasoning skills that they need for adult life. But they should also have the chance to take up apprenticeships or enter work straight from school, without the stigma of worrying that they are under-achieving compared to their peers who go on to university.
Making work pay
Finally, the Government needs to continue its admirable mission to unpick dependency on state support, empowering people to take control of their own lives with the security of paid work. We must continue to strip away the over-taxing of those that earn the least.
There are still a host of taxes that apply to those at the bottom. The worst offender is Employee’s National Insurance, which is nothing more than a stealth version of income tax. It should not be allowed to linger on beneath the radar, while the thresholds of income tax rise. They should be treated as part of the same package and should be cut accordingly for those families on tight budgets who have to make difficult decisions as it is.
The various duties, such as those applied to fuel or flights, hit the poor hardest. It’s worth considering whether reductions or outright abolition of these duties are possible. As the Exchequer’s tax receipts start to grow and we move into surplus, we should consider whether the modest benefits of air passenger duty, for example, are worth the burden they place on all families, whether rich or poor.
The best thing we can do to help the poor is to stop taking their hard-earned money away from them. It makes no sense to encourage people into work, only to grab a chunk back in tax.
Using social mobility to create a country of opportunity and hope
While detractors on the left espouse support for the failed policies of the past, as Conservatives we have a job to do. We need to build on the improvements made since 2010, which have given people the dignity, security and hope of a paying job.
There are numerous ways we can improve social mobility. My recommendations deal with just three: transforming the life chances of kids in care, allowing children to embrace their strengths in school and making sure government gets out of the way of those who are doing the right thing, working hard on tight budgets to provide for themselves and their families.
As Conservatives we must not allow social mobility to become a political soundbite. It is the bright light of hope for families, a welltrodden path to success and, above all, it should permeate every policy we implement in Government. Social mobility can only be achieved if hard work is rewarded in every aspect of life and it is only Conservatives who have the wherewithal to deliver it.
Adam Afriyie is Member of Parliament for Windsor.
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 16/03/2016.