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.

 
 
 
 

A helpful and informative guide to London, for the benefit of the New York Times editorial board

The sun rises over quaint old London town. Image: Getty.

It’s like with family members you hate: it’s fine for you to slag them off, but if anyone else has, you’re up in muted, backhanded arms about it.

Yesterday, the world’s number one London fan the New York Times tweeted a request for experiences of petty crime in the city. This was met by a deluge of predictably on-brand snark, like “Sometimes people scuff my leg and only apologise once”, and “Dicks who stand on the left-hand-side of tube escalators”. This served the dual purpose of uniting a divided London, and proving to the NYT that we are exactly the kind of chippy bastards who deserve to constantly lose their phones and wallets to petty crime.

By way of thanks for that brief endorphin rush, and in hopes of leading things in a more positive direction, I’d like to offer the Times this uplifting guide to London, by me, a Londoner.

I take my London like I take my coffee: on foot. If you are with someone special, or like me, like to reimagine your life in the format of Netflix dramady as you walk alone on Sundays, I can highly recommend the Thames Path as a place to start.

Kick things off next to Westminster, where we keep our national mace in the House of Commons. Useful though the mace might prove in instances of street theft, it is critical that it is never moved from the House. It acts as a power source for our elected representatives, who, if the mace is moved, become trapped in endless cycles of pointless and excruciatingly slow voting.

Cross Westminster Bridge to the Southbank, where in the manner of a spoiled 2018 Oliver Twist, you can beg for a hot chocolate or cup of chestnuts at the Christmas market for less that £8. Remember to hold your nose, the mutton vats are pungent. Doff your cap to the porridge vendor. (LOL, as if we make muttons in vats anymore. Box your own ears for your foolishness.) Then buy some hemp milk porridge, sprinkle with frankincense and myrrh, and throw it at the pigeons. There are thousands.

In the spring, head a little further south through Waterloo station. If you pass through the other side without getting ABBA stuck in your head, Napoleon’s ghost will appear to grant you three wishes.

Proceed to the Vaults, which is like the rabbit warrens in Watership Down, but for actors and comedians. No-one knows the correct way in, so expect to spend at least 45 minutes negotiating a series of increasingly neon graffiti tunnels. Regret not going to art school, and reward yourself upon your eventual entry with a drink at the bar. Browse the unintelligible show programme, and in no circumstances speak to any actors or comedians.

When you emerge from the Vaults three days later, turn back towards the river and head east. Enjoy the lights along the Thames while you pick at the spray paint stains on your coat. 


After about 20 minutes, you will reach the Tate Modern, which stands opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. Close to sunset, the sky, water, and cathedral might turn a warm peach colour. The Tate remains grey, coldly confident that for all its brutalist outline, it was still fantastically expensive to build. Feel grateful for that loose knit jumper you stole from the Vaults, and go inside.

Spend two minutes absorbing the largest and most accessible art, which is in the turbine hall, then a further hour in the museum shop, which is next to it. Buy three postcards featuring the upstairs art you skipped, and place them in your bag. They will never see the light of day again.

Head further east by way of Borough Market. Measure your strength of character by seeing how many free samples you are prepared to take from the stalls without buying anything. Leave disappointed. Continue east.

At Tower Bridge, pause and take 6,000 photos of the Tower of London and the view west towards parliament, so that people know. Your phone is snatched! Tut, resolve to take the embarrassment with you to your grave rather than shame Her Majesty's capital, and cross the river.

On the other side of the Bridge, you could opt to head north and slightly east to Shoreditch/Brick Lane/Whitechapel, where you can pay to enjoy walking tours describing how some pervert murdered innocent women over a century ago.

Don’t do that.

Instead, head west and north. through the City, until you reach Postman’s Park, which is a little north of St Paul’s, next to St Bartholomew's hospital. Go in, and find the wall at the far end. The wall is covered in plaques commemorating acts of extraordinary and selfless bravery by the city’s inhabitants. Read all of them and fail to hold back tears.

Then tweet about it.