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Bridging the education divide

July 22, 2011

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.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. James permalink
    July 22, 2011 10:19 am

    Stephen, you mentioned 2 schools in the consituency which are gaining funding because of the pupil premium. Are there any comprehensive schools in Bristol West which have had (or having) their funding cut?

    • July 22, 2011 6:09 pm

      Every school that has children on FSM will receive £450 per child in pupil premium starting this year and rising to £2,500 per pupil next year. Clearly for some schools this will be a huge benefit. Re the underlying schools budget – the spending review froze school spending at 2010 levels. The PP is extra on top of this frozen amount.

  2. Joe permalink
    July 22, 2011 10:34 am

    I must admit, I am cautiously optimistic about the pupil premium. My issues arise with the implementation of Conservative education policies, which give early signs of entrenching the education divide, rather than helping it. Susan Wiborg cites the creation of free schools as a policy which will help higher-attaining pupils tremendously, whilst leaving those from poorer performing schools static. Do you think the pupil premium is going to be sufficient to counter the more adverse effects of the some of the education policies to be implemented?

    • July 22, 2011 6:12 pm

      As I say in my article. the PP is a policy for which it will take possibly a decade before we can assess long term benefit. PP will be a feature for every school. The number of “free schools” will be tiny over that period. But north Bristol is getting one and I am worried about the effect it will have on existing schools.

  3. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    July 23, 2011 6:43 pm

    Education,education, education, so what went wrong? And these were mainly “boom” years. Could it have been the obsession with uni? I’m sure the mistake is in expecting so many to be academic when they never will be. What a scandal when we joke about the Polish plumber, and yet fail to train enough of our own. All the rubbish that was trotted out about the “new” economy and “added value” jobs but nobody was trained to paint your house. We should sort out a pupils individual skills at perhaps 15 or 16 and guide him down that road because it would be good for that individual and good for our economy. And if someone is really good, lets celebrate that, not make them feel embarrassed because they are the best. University is not for everyone!

  4. Martin Harvey permalink
    July 30, 2011 6:14 am

    Every one learns best when they feel good about themselves. If they do not feel good about themselves, then humiliation takes over and very little gets learned and that with resentment. This means many things, of course, but a basic level is having the respect and trust of the teacher in order to feel comfortable with the subject and the atmosphere in the classroom. Having spent many years in education as a learner, lecturer and facilitator of other folk’s learning, I am convinced that we do not have enough good role models for inspirational teaching. Perhaps we do not have enough good inspirational role models full stop.
    There are lots of possibilities here which I would love to explore with anyone interested, but the bottom line is that all children when they first go to any class room, need to feel secure and preferably receive the unconditional love of their teachers and carers. This raises the same problem as above. If there is no pattern of unconditional love from your background, how do you overcome this? It can be done. Doing it is likely to be the most transforming contribution to raising standards in areas of low achievement.
    What do others think?
    Martin Harvey

    • July 30, 2011 1:05 pm

      Martin – thanks for your thought provoking contribution. I would add a couple of points:
      1 Every child is good at something and good schools discover that talent and nurture it. Our school system and the whole of press comment on it, condemns many young people to fail at 16 as they are forced down a GCSE academic path which does not suit their aptitude.

      2 Being happy also depends on being safe. I had a vigorous campaign to raise awareness of bullying from 2005 onwards and the rules that schools now have to follow, in particular to deal with identity related bullying, are now much tighter.

  5. S.Wild permalink
    July 31, 2011 3:15 pm

    The pupil premium is positive action, but if schools can spend it any way they wish with no direction to spend it on raising attainment of the children lagging behind, it may make no difference.

    Unfortunately some of the problem is teacher’s unaware class stereotypes and ignorance. Low expectations. And as already mentioned, a lack of inspiring teaching. This was my experience in school 25 years ago and my daughter’s in the past 10 years. A lack of attention, quick to dismiss, no warmth – probably largely because classes are too big and teachers are over worked. In secondary schools with 5 sessions a day, teachers have around 150 kids to attend to daily – how can they possibly nurture the learning of each one of them. Private schools are better because they have smaller classes and more attention, as well as better resources.
    My daughter had a couple of teachers who always picked the white kids who put their hands up, not the black kids who might have put their hands up first. Racism is still rife.

    As for ‘we’re not all academic’, I agree that more practical skills, such as food production, bike/car mechanics, sewing, should be part of the curriculum and be equally valued, but limiting a person’s life direction mid-teens when they still know so little about themselves and about the world is wrong. With good teaching everyone can appreciate the importance of developing our minds, of literature, the arts, music, geography, science, health, technology, maths, history, communication and debate. Imagine if everyone had a good quality, well-rounded education, it would transform society.

  6. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    July 31, 2011 7:02 pm

    Yes, being good at the practical, which are just as essential to a successful society as the acedemic, does not exclude you from being interested in what you might like to call more “cultural” things. However, many of these interests don,t arise at an early age. Far more likely the practical types will follow a sporting line, and nothing wrong with that. With over a million young people not working, something in recent years has certainly gone wrong and from my very limited and certainly not professional experience, many would have been far better off having learnt a decent trade that would have given them real chance of employment.

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