Bridging the education divide

Once again we can see the evidence that Britain is still a very divided nation when it comes to education.  The UCU, the college lecturers’ union, has published data for each Parliamentary seat showing the number of adults in the workforce without any qualifications.  The figures come from the Office of National Statistics and I have looked at them many times over the years.

Top of the league table are poor areas of Glasgow, Birmingham, Bradford and Liverpool. Bottom (and this is a table where being bottom is good) are Hampshire towns such as Romsey and Winchester or the leafier areas of London and Leeds.  I was on Radio Bristol’s breakfast show this morning discussing the differences we can see between the Bristol constituencies.  My own seat of Bristol West fares well, at 521st of 632 Great Britain seats.  Roughly 5,300 people of working age have no qualifications, a rate of about 6.7%.  By contrast the worst performing Greater Bristol seat is Bristol East where 9,700 people have no qualifications, about 13% of the working population.

This information comes as no surprise.  Britain has had stark differences in educational attainment for decades.  In fact the data chosen by the UCU exaggerates the differences in life chances as it measures where working age adults live, rather than where they come from and went to school.  My own circumstances are an example.  I went to Mountain Ash Comprehensive School in the Cynon Valley.  The seat where I was brought up ranks 43rd in the data, with 19% having no qualifications.  I have a degree and professional qualification.  But my data now belongs to Bristol West.  We all know that well educated people tend to cluster as they stay in their university towns (very true in Bristol West, stuffed full of Bristol and UWE graduates) or go to the areas of well paid professional work.  People with no qualifications also cluster in areas of low paid work and social housing.

But despite the distorted picture painted by this data, it does overlay another familiar pattern of socio-economic divide.  Levels of attainment at school and college vary enormously.  This is of course largely due to the demographic make-up of an area.  We are still very much a country where the life experience of parents is replicated by their children.  In parts of Bristol, south Wales and Glasgow there are generations of families with nothing to show from their school years, trapped in low paid jobs or worklessness and long term ill health.  These problems were familiar a century ago and need policies that will only show a benefit in the long term.

There is now a reasonable consensus across the three parties that early intervention will make a difference.  Keeping children on track in the nursery and their primary schools will pay huge dividends at age 16.  Currently, to be blunt, the attainment levels at 16 in England are an international embarrassment.  The Coalition Government is implementing a top Lib Dem policy to transform life chances, the pupil premium.  We know that children on free school meals (I was one of them) disproportionately fall behind at school.  Now schools will get extra money for each child on free school meals.  It’s up to the schools how they spend the extra resources but extra one to one tuition for reading and maths would clearly make a difference.  Schools such as Hannah Moore and Bannerman Road in my constituency with over 50% of children on FSM will gain from this policy.

It will be a decade or more before we can see whether the policy has worked.  But the data in today’s news will not have shifted unless we also rebalance our economy and also change the education choices of young people.  If there are no jobs or only low paid work in an area then the well educated will still cluster somewhere else.  Investment in City Regions, building a green and sustainable economy, better advice on training and employment and more take up of apprentice places will all make a difference.

A holistic long term approach, tackling schooling, housing and the availability of work is what’s needed.  The Edwardian Liberals knew this, so did Labour in 1945.  I hope that the 2010 Coalition Government will be a reforming government that lays the foundations for long term change to a more balanced and equal Britain.

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