Children from deprived backgrounds face the worst prospects in some of the richest parts of the country, according to a damning new study that lays bare deep geographical divisions across Britain.
An annual report by the government’s own social mobility watchdog warns that while London and its suburbs are pulling away, rural, coastal and former industrial areas are being left behind.
The State of the Nation report finds that some of the wealthiest areas in England – including west Berkshire, the Cotswolds and Crawley, deliver worse outcomes for their disadvantaged children than places that are much poorer, such as Sunderland and Tower Hamlets.
Writing in the Guardian, Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, has warned of a country “in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division”, where children are plunged into a postcode lottery from birth.
“London and its hinterland are increasingly looking like a different country from the rest of Britain. It is moving ahead, as are many of our country’s great cities. But too many rural and coastal areas and the towns of Britain’s old industrial heartlands are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially,” he added, warning that “tinkering around the edges” would not do.
The report also finds that the north is £6bn a year underfunded compared to the capital, but says the research also “debunks the assumption that a simple north/south divide exists”.
Instead, it reveals that the east and west Midlands are the worst performing regions, while a list of local authorities places the coastal council of west Somerset at the bottom while Westminster is at the top.
Other findings include that:
- 51% of children on free school meals in London achieve A* to C grades in English and maths GCSE compared with a 36% average in all other regions. There is a gulf between the highest figures of 63% in Westminster and the lowest, 27% on the Isle of the Wight
- Meanwhile in Kensington and Chelsea, 50% of disadvantaged youngsters make it to university compared with just 10% in Hastings, Barnsley and Eastbourne
- Some of the worst performing areas, such as Weymouth and Portland, and Allerdale, are rural not urban
- In fact, in 71, largely rural areas, more than 30% of the people earn below the voluntary living wage – with average wages in west Somerset just £312 a week, less than half of the best performing areas
- In Bolsover just 17% of residents are in jobs that are professional and managerial positions compared with 51% in Oxford
The study says that a critical factor in the best performing councils is the quality of teachers available, with secondary teachers 70% more likely to leave the profession in deprived areas.
Although richer parts of Britain do tend to outperform more deprived areas overall in the social mobility index designed by researchers, that isn’t always true. Some of the most affluent areas do worse for the poor kids than some of the least well off.
Coastal areas are a focus of the report, with warnings about schools being isolated. Recommendations include more collaboration between schools and subsidised travel for disadvantaged young people in isolated areas. The commission also calls for central government to fund a push for schools in rural and coastal areas to work together.
They also say that the government should rebalance the national transport budget to help tackle regional disparities.
“Whole tracts of our country feel left behind, because they are. Whole communities feel the benefits of globalisation have passed them by, because it has. Whole sections of society feel they are not getting a fair chance to succeed, because they are not,” said Milburn.
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats leader, told the Guardian that for too many people social mobility had become nothing but “an empty buzzword”.
“The government urgently needs to take action to improve the prospects of young people in Britain’s rural areas and former industrial heartlands. That should include £100bn of public investment in housebuilding and transport infrastructure to spread opportunity to every corner of the country,” he said.
“Ministers must reverse welfare cuts and boost school funding to give disadvantaged children the best possible chance in life.” The former business secretary argued that reducing regional inequalities was critical to tackle the underlying resentment that had driven the Brexit vote.
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said the findings were stark and pointed to a country that “is becoming more divided”. She blamed a “record of failure” by the Conservatives, who she accused of cutting Sure Start funding in half, plunging nurseries into crisis and leaving 400,000 more children in poverty.
“The government has missed its teacher recruitment targets five years in a row – and for two years running more teachers have left classrooms than joined the profession,” she added. “The government’s offer on social mobility is a scheme to take a few children up to 30 miles a day by taxi to get to the nearest grammar school, while cutting school transport for the many.”
However, education secretary, Justine Greening, said the findings underlined the importance of focusing efforts on disadvantaged areas, highlighting the government’s opportunity areas programme.
“We are making progress – there are now 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. Disadvantaged young people are entering universities at record rates, and the attainment gap between them and their peers has narrowed,” she said.
“We are also boosting salaries through the introduction of the national living wage, creating more full-time, permanent jobs and investing £9bn in affordable housing. Taken together, this won’t just change individual lives, it will help transform our country into a fairer society.”
The report calls for the Department for Education’s £72m funding for opportunity areas to be matched by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in order to link up schooling and workplace opportunities.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010