Regional inequality has a huge impact on teenagers’ university chances. So how can we fix it?

Some east London school children meet the Queen. Image: Getty.

The vast majority of children in the UK have one thing in common: they attended a state school. Whatever unfair privileges are bestowed upon the privately educated (and there are many), this commonality should mean a levelling of the playing field for rest of us.

So why, in reality, do educational outcomes still depend so much on where in the country you’re born?

There is surprisingly little discussion about this: our debates on educational privilege tend to categorise those who went to private school as a rarefied elite, while lumping the remaining 93.5 per cent of the population together. Last month, when Jeremy Corbyn proposed measures to increase transparency around journalists’ backgrounds, a parade of politicians and media personalities – many from wealthy areas of the country – trumpeted their state school education as if it were a working class badge of honour. This lack of nuance prevents us from having a serious and much-needed conversation about inequality in the UK’s education system.

Department for Education figures offer a striking demonstration of the large regional variations in education prospects, especially for disadvantaged children. The most recent data shows that 20 per cent of disadvantaged 18 year olds from London get in to Universities ranked in the top third (including the Russell Group and Oxbridge), compared to only 6 per cent in the worst performing regions of the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the South West. This 6 per cent for the disadvantaged is a lower success rate than that any race (the lowest is white, with 8 per cent) or type of school (comprehensive schools in areas with lots of with grammars, with 9 per cent).

Generational disadvantage and funding

The regional divide is so pronounced that a higher proportion of disadvantaged children from London end up at top third Universities than even children who aren’t disadvantaged from every other part of the country except the South East: just 15 per cent of 18 year olds in the North East who fall outside the disadvantaged category end up at these institutions.

According to new research by Professor Stephen Gorard, an education policy expert at Durham University, this is not due to differences in schools or teachers; he analysed data on 1.8m pupils and found no evidence that schools in the north are inherently worse. Instead, he found schools around the country deal with very different cohorts of students. “The education system is distorted, because it doesn’t take into account the long term poverty that exists in certain areas.”

Disadvantage is judged on the basis of Free School Meals (FSM), Gorard explained: an 18 year old is considered disadvantaged if they have spent any one of their previous six school years on FSM. This means no distinction is made between a child who has spent all their life in poverty and one who has been “artificially poor”, as Gorard puts it – on FSM for a year because of a divorce or a parent’s career change, say.

Since the Pupil Premium – money given to schools to support disadvantaged children – is allocated on this basis, this has implications for funding. Schools in Kensington & Chelsea, for example, receive the same amount of Pupil Premium, pro rata, as those in Middlesbrough; but Gorard's research found a substantially higher proportion of children in Middlesborough have lived in poverty for large chunks of their time at school. 


Close to success

Poverty certainly exists all over the country. But schools in the capital’s poorest boroughs are embedded within one of the wealthiest cities on earth: home to world class institutions and a culture of dynamism and aspiration that can seem cut off from the rest of the country.

Talking to teachers working in poorer parts of the North and London shows they face quite different challenges. Rachel Costoya, head of careers at Garforth Academy – a non selective Yorkshire school with a good track record of sending disadvantaged children to university – said part of her job is to build awareness of how higher education works among parents, as well as students.

“For a lot of parents, if they haven’t been to university, they might not know you can access finance or that there are deadlines to apply. At our information evenings, you’ll see parents scribbling stuff down because it’s the first time they’ve heard it.”

Costoya has forged links with the universities of Newcastle, Leeds and Northumbria. But it can be difficult to make connections with institutions further south, so students simply aren’t aware of how many options there are. The school now includes a map in its UCAS brochure to help illustrate this.

Meanwhile, Michael Ghany, a TeachFirst teacher at a school in the Elephant & Castle district of south London says that – despite poverty in the surrounding area and high numbers of pupils who don’t speak English as a first language, the culture of aspiration encourages teenagers at his school to achieve.

“Across the borough, expectations are really high. We’re not expecting kids to slip through the net, we expect them to do well.

“For inner city London kids, education may not be perfect, but they are getting a good deal.”

Education in the UK will only get better, according to Professor Gorard’s manifesto, by refocusing attention on the most disadvantaged children. This may be politically difficult to implement – but at least we know where they are.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.