On Monday 11 March, Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP gave a speech for Onward on Unleashing the Great British Underdog: A vision for the Opportunity Society. Click here to watch the full video of the speech and Q&A. Dominic’s remarks are republished below.
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Good morning. I’d like to thank Havas Media for hosting us, and Will Tanner and the team at Onward for the vision, ideas and optimism they are bringing to our political debate.
Isn’t it great to be talking about something other than Brexit?
When I was appointed Brexit Secretary, some of you might’ve thought it was my dream job. I get that.
But that’s not my dream subject.
Brexit’s a big deal, and it dominates debate. But I got into politics to talk about something else. It’s something I feel very strongly about. And that’s what I want to talk you about today.
It’s hard get it down to a soundbite. You can say: ‘social mobility’ but that doesn’t really capture the full meaning, emotionally…morally … of encouraging and supporting young people to rise up, realise their potential, and fulfil their dreams.
I got into politics because I love this country, and I want every child… every child… to get their chance to make the best of their potential, and to be a success in life.
My father was a refugee to Britain. He arrived aged 6 with no English… but he made the best of his abilities and became a food marketing manager at M&S. There he met a clothes buyer, my Mum. They married and had my sister and me. This country gave my father a second chance. Maybe, that’s why he was one of the proudest Brits I knew.
Sadly, he died when I was 12. Just before he passed away, he did something that changed my life.
We lived near a great grammar school, Dr Challoners in Amersham, and I applied to go there.
There were three 12+ tests. I passed two … but on the day of the third, my sister was in a bad car crash that put her in hospital for several months. I went to school that day, and I sat the exam anyway. But I was thinking about my sister. I did so badly in the test that it brought my average down and I didn’t get in.
When my Dad found out what had happened, he appealed. He asked the school to take the average from the first two papers, and the appeal was successful.
Now, thankfully, my sister recovered. Sadly, just a month before my first day at Dr Challoners, my Dad passed away. But I can still remember… how proud he was that I was getting ready to go to school there.
His effort was worth it. That school changed his son’s life. I could not have had a better education, and not just in academic terms. The whole ethos of the school prepared the kids to fulfil their potential – and not just in work but in life.
Building a Fairer Society
I guess it’s natural that my family history has coloured my outlook, and my politics. My Dad was Jewish, Mum raised us Church of England and I married a Catholic.
I never expected that we’d still see the kind of racism my Dad suffered in twenty-first century Britain, that we’re now seeing in the anti-semitism plaguing the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. And I know there are many Labour MPs who are as disgusted as I am about that.
The first principle of a fair society is that is doesn’t discriminate on grounds of race, religion, gender or sexuality. That’s essential, but it’s not enough.
I want to see all our kids, everywhere, have the chance that my Dad had, that I had, to make a success of themselves – based on their abilities and hard-graft.
My experience taught me that no one-off meritocratic process will ever be perfect, so we need to build layer upon layer of opportunity, I’m talking about a ‘second chance society’, for those who miss out on their shot, whether that’s because of bad luck, a bad day, or they just happen to blossom later in life. We’ve got to make sure that our young people get a genuine opportunity to fulfil their potential.
But that’s not what’s happening in Britain today. Think about this: social mobility has actually declined in this country since the Second World War. And it’s not getting any better. It is one of the few things the Left and Right agree on in British politics … albeit with different explanations for the problem and what we should do about it.
We know the socialist or egalitarian answer, which is equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. But I don’t think that’s right.
People need the opportunity to benefit from their ability, their determination, and their hard-work.
If you make policies designed to deliver a society with equality of outcome… for every individual, regardless of how much they put in, it would drain our economic competitiveness, because you take away incentives for people to strive. And that kills aspiration.
So we’ve got a two-part challenge: one – we need to build a fairer society that strengthens the enterprise economy, rather than weakens it.
And two, we’ve got to make our country fairer… by expanding opportunity, not suffocating it as many on the Left would have us do.
Build on what we got right – the Gove reforms
But let’s just take a moment to recognise what we’ve been getting right.
The Gove revolution with its focus on phonics, numeracy and literacy, academic rigour, and greater freedom for head-teachers to pioneer new ways of running schools has been a huge success.
I know from my own experience, with two boys 4 and 6, how important phonics is. I’ve read to both boys every morning since they were six weeks old. And I’ve loved watching how phonics equipped them to feed their own curiosity, from the sun and stars to stories like the Gruffalo.
For us as parents too, we get a precious opportunity to bond with our kids, away from tablets and tv screens.
Because of Michael Gove’s reforms, we’ve seen literacy standards rise by 40% since 2012, when we introduced phonics. More broadly, we have 1.9 million more children in schools deemed good or outstanding.
Now, I’m not saying academic scores are the only thing that matter. Far from it. We need to be looking at our children in a much more rounded way. And that includes appreciating the value of sport, music, drama and art in building up self-confidence and self-esteem … particularly for young people from tough neighbourhoods, or difficult family circumstances.
I remember when my Dad died, I went up the hill to grammar school in Amersham, and down the hill on my BMX down to Slough Karate Club. I trained there for 20 years, made 3rd Dan, won two British Southern Region titles, and spent a year on the British squad.
Looking back, I understand it was about much more than the sport. There were strong role models, a cracking camaraderie, and an ethos of respect.
After the earthquake my family had been through, it certainly helped restore my confidence, and that hugely benefited my attitude to school and life.
There are lots of talented kids out there for whom sport and other non-academic pursuits are the catalyst to the self-belief they need … to turn the flicker of ambition into the flame of success.
At the same time, I know that some of the Conservative school reforms have been unpopular with teachers.
One concern I’m sympathetic to… is the charge of constant revolution. We need to allow the changes in curriculum, the introduction of the EBACC, and the new reforms to Ofsted inspections… to bed down, and give our teachers time, and the space to implement them.
If there’s one change I’d like to see, having sat on the Education Select Committee between 2013 and 2014, it’s to pay teachers more… for teaching in our tougher schools. That would make it an important part of career progression for the best in the profession. And think about it: what better way to give children from the hardest backgrounds exposure to the very best teachers?
What’s vital…is to allow these reforms the time and space to drive up standards across the board. Let’s not forget that improving standards of learning …across the whole state education system is the most important building block for improving social mobility.
Widen Choice, Unleash the Aspirational Underdog
But what we also know from Free Schools and Academies is that… one size doesn’t fit all.
We need to challenge our own assumptions and keep looking for new ways to set up ladders of opportunity for the bright kid of modest means.
Of course, you all know…everyone in this room with children knows… each one is different, unique, and they’re all the more precious for it. They have different aptitudes and passions.
One of the risks I’m conscious of… and try to guard against, as a Dad, is limiting my children’s horizons by my own experiences. I certainly don’t hanker for them to become politicians.
But, there’s a broader social challenge here. We’ve created a culture in this country that prizes academic attainment above all else, funnelling more and more young people through university regardless of the benefits or the costs.
And, anyway, when did we make it a condition of being a success in life that you had to go to university? Neither of my parents did, but I always admired the success they made of their lives. There’s an in-built snobbery that we have acquired in this country … and it is holding our young people back.
We need more ladders of opportunity for the bright, but not necessarily bookish kids who want to reach their full potential.
Let me give you an example: Tony Blair introduced Young Apprenticeships for 14 to 16 year olds, but they started to be phased out under Gordon Brown and then the Coalition. I think that was a mistake. 14 to 16 is the age when truancy rates spike, and if you lose those children from the classroom, it’s hard to get them back.
Young Apprenticeships were hugely successful. The kids who’d been falling behind the most, before they joined the scheme, gained the most from it. Instead of shutting down vocational opportunities, let’s revive Young Apprenticeships, at least as a choice, for this age group.
But, we can’t stop there. If we’re serious about offering our children a credible vocational alternative that leads to a good job, then we need to see it through consistently, and that means beyond school.
We should build on T Levels, by expanding and promoting degree apprenticeships, like the flagship one offered by Jaguar Land Rover partnered with Warwick University.
Degree Apprenticeships allow young people to combine working with acquiring a vocational degree, but without the fifty-thousand pounds of debt the average student racks up after a normal degree.
That’s one great scheme… but how can we stick rocket boosters under Degree Apprenticeships, to scale them up and expand access?
To start with, Degree Apprenticeships should be given greater access to the Apprenticeship Levy. They should be mandated as a top priority for the Institute for Apprenticeships. And they should be fully integrated as part of the UCAS application process for every young person. That would give them the same status as normal degrees, and offer a genuine high-quality technical alternative for the next generation of school leavers.
Let’s offer young people a choice with all of the opportunity university has to offer … but none of the debt.
That’s just one area ripe for reform. There are plenty of other areas where we must smash through the glass ceilings holding our children back.
I remember my first day as a trainee at Linklaters, the law firm. A partner said to me: ‘You can forget all that stuff you studied, it won’t help you in the real world. Your training starts now’.
I got a terrific training there, and I understood what he meant. I just couldn’t help thinking it was a hell of a waste of money … not to mention 5 years studying.
With tuition fees at their level today, that’s no joke for aspiring young lawyers.
So, since 2010, I’ve been championing non-graduate routes to becoming a solicitor. And they’ve flourished.
Now we need to expand those non-graduate routes into other professions which are starting to catch on, like accountancy.
Likewise, we need to encourage young people, who’ve got some entrepreneurial spirit, to think about setting up a business. A few years back, I was involved in a review by the Royal Society of Arts into attitudes to setting up a business. It found that many parents and teachers didn’t take the idea seriously… they treated it like a gap year before university. That’s such a shame, when you think of the self-made entrepreneurs this country has turned out, from Alan Sugar to Tony Pidgley in my constituency.
We can’t lose that. We’ve got to rekindle that buccaneering entrepreneurial spirit for the next generation. And there are some brilliant initiatives out there. Take ‘Entrepreneur First’. Started by Angel Investors, it takes talented students, but there aren’t any formal academic requirements. They spend the first 6 months developing business ideas with mentoring and networking. Then, they spend the second 6 months turning their bright idea into a start-up business, with Entrepreneur First providing office space, living costs and seed capital.
It’s a terrific scheme. Let’s scale it up, so the next generation of budding entrepreneurs get their chance to start their own business from scratch.
The government could boost Entrepreneur First by allowing participants to take out the maintenance loan element of the student loan for the year, to promote access for poorer young people.
Next, we should consider increasing income tax relief for investors through the Enterprise Investment Scheme from 30% to 50% to attract more entrepreneurs to back it with their time and know-how.
The beauty of Entrepreneur First is that it boosts the enterprise economy and the opportunity society.
Let’s encourage our young people to find that great idea. To believe they can turn it into a great business. To believe there’s no limit to what they can achieve.
Widen Access to some of the Best Schools
And, finally, what about our brilliant independent school sector? Rather than bashing or abolishing, as some on the Left argue for, I want to open it up so more kids from poorer backgrounds actually benefit.
I’ve been arguing since 2012 that the government should adopt the Sutton Trust’s Open Access scheme.
At no extra cost to the taxpayer, that initiative would open up 90 leading independent schools to entry on meritocratic basis, with means-tested fee support.
When Open Access was piloted at Belvedere School in Liverpool, 70% of pupils received fee support, and a third were eligible for free school meals.
Ultimately, I’d love to see the Sutton Trust scheme as a first step to opening up all independent schools on a means-tested and meritocratic basis.
Of course, the Labour party will scream elitism.
But many of the Labour frontbench benefited from a grammar school or private school, or sent their kids to one.
We shouldn’t let the Labour party’s hypocrisy stop us from expanding opportunities, giving those of modest means their chance to go to some of the best schools.
Just think what it would mean for the children growing up in the urban sink estate… or the rural backwater, to get the opportunity to go to schools their parents never dreamed they could attend.
Creating those opportunities, making those dreams come true: that should be our calling as Conservatives.
So, as I said to you at the start, I was lucky enough to get my shot in life. But today… too many young people don’t get theirs.
I want to see a radical program of Conservative reform … that’s the political passion I was talking about. We’ve got to break through the glass ceilings, raise more ladders of opportunity for every child, everywhere.
I want us to build an opportunity society… that empowers the aspirational underdog… to reach his or her full potential, however they started out in life.
Opportunity. That should be our lodestar. And that should be the driving mission for the Conservatives in post-Brexit Britain.