From education to employment

Growing up North – Time to Close the Gap

Susanne Shah, Director of Divorce & Family Law, Vardags, Newcastle

Newcastle is bursting with potential, but young people in the region don’t have enough opportunity

Recently the Children’s commissioner published “Growing up North, a report which outlined the disadvantage that our children face simply from growing up north of the Watford gap. This report reiterated a known truth that children from poorer backgrounds face an education disadvantage that begins before schooling.

In London the distinction isn’t so sharp. We’re all familiar with the purported ‘London effect’, the great turnaround in the capital’s failing schools whose disadvantaged pupils now generally outperform those in the rest of the country.

Any teacher will tell you it’s the coastal towns and the North, neglected by education initiatives, that now have a hard time trying to boost attainment.

Those growing up in these areas without well-off families without wealthy parents face double the disadvantage, finishing school with poorer grades and less likely to go on to further education.

George Osborne appeared before the Education Select Committee on Wednesday 2nd May as chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, calling for the gap in school performance between the North and London to be closed by 2022. I hope this means there is political will to put resources behind it, but I don’t think I’ll be the only one not holding my breath.  

The news that children growing up in the North are being left behind, sadly doesn’t come as a shock.

It’s a long-felt fear that the opportunities aren’t quite there for all. And for all the talk of plans for a northern powerhouse, little has come of it to date.

In the north east particularly, where we have perhaps the most beautiful coastline, a buzzing city life and many highly talented individuals, the investment is lacking.

No small wonder then, that many of our young people aren’t brimming with confidence in their futures.

When we set up Vardags in Newcastle we made a commitment to local expansion. I lead a team with two amazing Senior Associate Solicitor’s from Morpeth and Teesside and three (soon to be four) very bright, talented graduate trainees who did their legal studies at Northumbria, like me.

Every day my team impress me, and it strikes me that Newcastle is bursting with potential. But young people in the region don’t have enough opportunity.

For young women these problems are compounded further. It is not that our girls lack aspiration, but for every girl given support as she realises her ambitions, others are held back by low expectations of what her future will hold.

The research indicates that self-belief is an issue, as well as insufficient exposure to different industries. Growing Up North gave clear indications that young people in the region follow the career paths most familiar, and most local to them. And why shouldn’t they?

Young people want opportunities in the home communities they love. This shouldn’t mean that their horizons are any narrower, wherever their talents lie. Our young people need to see pathways into the opportunities that are here.

We have several of the best universities in the world in the North of England, and yet there are children in our communities who are not being empowered to challenge themselves and reach their full potential.

As a lawyer myself, I wonder how many pupils are encouraged to pursue their interest in law at school for example? I know I wasn’t.

From what I can tell if we are to tackle the gap, we need to address vision, opportunity and confidence. It takes investment in local industries to create more work, an ambition beyond the reach of most of us. And the kind of wide-scale education initiatives London has enjoyed, the London Challenge, Teach First and so on, requires funding, not to mention political will. But creating professional networks, offering contacts and support and offering children and young people exposure to different industries – that is both achievable, with the potential for profound change.  

This is why I’ve begun working with Jacqui Henderson CBE, who is the founder of ‘Find Your Future’ a group of executive North East women who are looking to help and inspire young girls to realise their potential and seek out new opportunities and fulfilling careers.

We feel it our duty to help the youth in our area, by speaking in schools, colleges and universities in Northumberland and the North East Region.

We believe that by utilising the vast experience and expertise of the many women who are already successful in their own sector we can offer both personal contact as a successful role model and provide other developmental opportunities.

The next step is linking up with other local networks, initiatives and organisations. When we get local endeavours to cooperate, we can take an even more holistic approach.

If you’re growing up in a low-income household or have to manage the additional difficulty of illness or disability, then your search for career opportunities is sadly, all the harder.

I am only just beginning to see how these difficulties might be addressed. One thing I’m doing is offering my time to Teenage Cancer Trust and the programme they run for those in recovery. The emphasis will be on helping them gain confidence in themselves, and getting into work or further education.

I hosted a networking event at my office for the charity on the May 3 and to me it just showed what can happen when our community comes together. All donations went straight to Northeast hospitals.

Local-businesswomen came, Jacqui included, and supported the event and some fabulous local firms provided generous donations so the event could happen. All these women and business people wanted to give back to their communities, and support our children and young people.

Yes, we need investment, better infrastructure, transport links connecting the North, and for the government to remember that the North extends beyond Manchester.

We need policy-makers to work with those of us who are willing to help shape our children’s futures. But even when these things do come through, they will need local direction to be made a success.

Until Whitehall decides to pull through, I suspect it’ll be down to our teachers and home-grown initiatives to try, inch-by-inch, to close that gap.

Susanne Shah, Director of Divorce & Family Law, Vardags, Newcastle

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