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.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.