From education to employment

South West blighted by low social mobility, experts warn in new report

The South West suffers some of the lowest levels of social mobility in the UK, blighting the prospects of hundreds of thousands of young people across the peninsula, experts have warned.

A major new report argues national efforts to level-up opportunities should look much wider than a narrow north-south divide. It proposes practical solutions and a dedicated commission for the region to improve the life chances for future generations growing up in the area.

The report, the result of a year-long review, warns low wages, geographical disconnection and a lack of impetus for change amongst some leaders are harming the lives of people in the South West.

The experts propose a series of bold educational interventions to help improve young lives. This includes recruiting university students to help tutor poorer pupils in local schools and trialling school-centred community hubs to coordinate help for families.

Gaps in classroom attainment between poorer pupils and their peers in the South West are the largest of all English regions at the end of both primary and secondary school. Just 40 per cent of disadvantaged pupils attained a standard pass in GCSE English and Maths in 2019 compared with almost 60 per cent in Inner London.

Progression rates to universities for both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils are the lowest of all regions. Just 17 per cent of disadvantaged students went on to university in 2018/19 compared with 45 per cent in London.

Lee Elliot Major, the country’s first Professor of Social Mobility, based at the University of Exeter, said: “We hope that this will be a wake-up call for a region which faces some of the most profound social and educational divides in the country. Our evidence demonstrates to central Government that levelling up efforts must prioritise the South West. Improving social mobility is about ensuring that all people fulfil their potential and lead full lives in the communities they come from.”

Professor Elliot Major worked alongside Dr Anne-Marie Sim on Social Mobility in the South West. They will present their findings to business, school and charity leaders at special launch event on 28th April at the University of Exeter chaired by Sir Michael Barber. Initial funding for the research was provided by the Cobalt Trust.

The report proposes four educational ‘best bets’ for addressing the challenges and levelling up opportunities:

  • A university led tutoring scheme targeted to disadvantaged pupils in need of extra literacy and numeracy help. The project team are piloting some models at the University of Exeter and will produce further recommendations later this year.
  • School-centred community hubs to provide cradle to career support for children aged 0 to 21, with a particular emphasis on the first 1001 days of their lives. These hubs would be coordinated by schools and tailored to specific community needs.
  • Flexible post-16 learning, combined with a free 16-19 travel pass, to reduce the cost and risk of pursuing further study and training.
  • A sharper focus on disadvantage to bring more focus to closing the disadvantage gap in schools. This includes Regional Schools Commissioners leading a regional drive to instil best practice in schools and academy trusts; and a concerted effort to improve parental engagement.

The extensive review of the evidence found:

  • Low earnings and poor pay are common in many parts of the region: for example, four of Devon’s eight districts are among the UK’s top 25 low wage ‘hotspots’
  • There are poor mental health outcomes for both children and adults across the peninsula
  • Teacher recruitment, retention and training are challenges for isolated and remote schools
  • Schools have on average lower levels of school funding than elsewhere; fewer are rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted, and this is especially so in deprived areas
  • Long travel times to pursue further education or work: for example, for students from Dulverton in West Somerset, attending their nearest FE college means a 12 hour+ day; there is a 27 per cent drop out rate
  • Fewer professional jobs are available in most areas
  • There is a youth exodus: despite its relatively small population and low rate of progression to higher education, the South West has the highest number of 16-24 year olds and the highest number of students leaving the region.

The researchers, part of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Social Mobility, were supported by an advisory board comprising of Professor Sir Steve Smith (Chair), UK Government International Education Champion, Stephen Dawson, Chair of the Cobalt Trust, founder and former Chair of Impetus, Mary Curnock Cook, former Chief Executive of UCAS, Dame Suzi Leather, former Chair of the Charity Commission, Will Harvey, Professor of Leadership at the University of Bristol, Karl Tucker, Chair of the Heart of the South West LEP, and Rachel Wolf, founding partner at Public First.

Sir Steve said: “This comprehensive review of evidence is both damning and shocking: it lays bare the huge challenges facing the peninsula and makes a compelling case for improving the prospects of future generations.”

Mr Tucker said: “I believe that it is important that we establish a social mobility commission for the South West that can take the lead on holding ourselves to account for delivering a better future for our young people. 

“As businesses we are facing a significant labour and skills shortage and are constantly being challenged to improve performance and productivity through the investment in new technologies.  To do this we will need to have a vibrant and well-educated labour force.” 

Ms Wolf said: “This important report highlights the urgent need for levelling up in the South West, and offers a template for other regions to follow in producing a detailed road map for improving future life prospects.”

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