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.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, which was agreed in the 1950s and opened in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as part of the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simpler: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.