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'Geography of disadvantage' hits poor children's life chances

Published 31/01/2016

Alan Milburn called for action to improve social mobility (Lancaster University)
Alan Milburn called for action to improve social mobility (Lancaster University)

England is suffering from a "new geography of disadvantage" with a poor child's life chances heavily dependent on where they live, according to a major new report.

While London and the surrounding areas are doing well in giving youngsters a decent education and the opportunity of a good job, other parts of the country, particularly coastal and industrial towns, are fast becoming entrenched social mobility "cold spots".

Many better-off towns and major cities are also falling well short in creating opportunities for disadvantaged children to succeed, the new Social Mobility Index found.

The Index, published by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, ranks each of England's 324 local authority areas on the chances of a poor child doing well at school and getting a good job, based on a series of measures including exam results and the local job and housing market.

Commission chairman Alan Milburn said the findings "lay bare the local lottery in social mobility" adding that it was "shocking" that some of the richest parts of the country are among those that are failing poor children.

London performs highly with 23 out of 32 of the capital's boroughs ranked in the top 10% of areas for social mobility, the Index concludes. This "London effect" extends out into the commuter belt, with most of Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire doing well, along with many areas of Kent and western Essex.

The best performing area overall was Westminster in central London.

Among the very worst performers - those in the bottom 10% for social mobility - over half (58%) are in the East Midlands and the East of England.

Both Oxford and Cambridge were among the places identified as social mobility "cold spots" - meaning they were included in the worst-performing 20% of areas.

These areas also included Norwich, which came second on the cold spot list, behind West Somerset in first place. Cambridge was at number 50 on the cold spot list, while Oxford was in 61st place.

Meanwhile Northampton in the East Midlands was at number 30 on the cold spots list and Worcester was placed at number 35.

Many of these places are in areas which have traditionally been regarded as relatively affluent parts of the country, the Commission said.

The coastal and industrial towns that performed badly, finding a place in the worst performing 20% of authorities include Mansfield in 8th place, Blackpool in 9th, Scarborough 13th, Doncaster 24th and Great Yarmouth in 28th place.

Cities including Nottingham, Derby and Norwich were also poor performers against the Index.

In a foreword to the report, Mr Milburn said that the "opportunity map" of England is complex and changing.

"The Social Mobility Index suggests that very similar areas that are only a few miles apart do very differently on social mobility despite having similar challenges and opportunities."

Commenting on the findings, he said: "The Social Mobility Index uncovers a new geography of disadvantage in England. It lays bare the local lottery in social mobility. It gets beneath the surface of a crude North/South divide and calls into question some of the conventional wisdom about where disadvantage is now located. It is shocking that many of the richest areas of the country are the ones failing their poorest children the most.

"This report is a wake-up call for educators and employers as well as policy-makers, both local and national. If social mobility is to take off, much more will need to be done if there is to be a level playing field of opportunity in our country. The gulf between the ambition of a One Nation Britain and today's reality of a Divided Britain is far too wide."

The findings come amid continuing concerns about the life chances of poor children.

Last month, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw said that the extent to which under-performing secondary schools are concentrated in particular parts of the country is deeply troubling, and is leading to ''nothing short of a divided nation''.

He said a lack of political will is contributing to the ''growing divide'' which means that of the 173 failing secondary schools in the country, 130 are in the North and Midlands, with just 43 in the South.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "All of our reforms are underpinned by a total commitment to fairness and social justice. That is why raising standards for every child, regardless of circumstances, is part of our plan to ensure everyone can achieve their full potential.

"Thanks to our reforms there are now 1.4million more pupils being taught in 'good' or 'outstanding' schools compared to 2010. And over this Parliament we are determined to spread this educational excellence everywhere, extending true social mobility for all."

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: "The Commission's index paints a bleak picture of social mobility in some parts of the UK and confirms our own research that shows that the life chances of disadvantaged young people vary enormously according to where they live.

"As we showed last year in our Mobility Map - and which the Commission confirms today - it isn't as simple as a North-South divide. As a general rule coastal areas and industrial towns have low social mobility but there are places close to each other with very different results.

"Drilling into this data - and looking at what the best schools in the poorest areas are doing to improve results for their most challenging pupils, and applying what they do to other schools - is vital to ensuring that opportunities are raised in low social mobility areas."

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