From education to employment

‘To have or have not’: We need to overcome the North’s educational class and spacial divide if we’re to give every child a fighting chance

Stephen Lambert

Working Class youngsters have become the North’s under-achievers at school. That’s why the region’s schools and colleges need more investment to give all young people a chance.

As the Huddersfield University educationalist Ron Thompson points out it is social class or socio-economic status and not ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation that determines how well a child does at school. The more affluent the family, measured by wealth , income or occupation, the more successful a young person will be and the greater the educational ‘life-chances’.

As Labour leader Sir Kier Starner righty notes the defining mission of a responsible government must be to eliminate these disparities and ensure that every young person in the North and elsewhere has the opportunity to fulfil his/her potential.

The North -East Poverty Commission is one of the latest to observe that working class kids or those from poorer neighbourhoods achieve weaker exam results than those of their peers from more well-to-do families. According to research carried out by the business led Northern Powerhouse Partnership qualification levels are lower in our region than England as a whole. Over a quarter of the population have no vocational or academic qualifications. Less than a quarter possess a level 4 technical qualification. One third of all pupils fail to get a level 4 pass in GCSE Maths and English.

The most disadvantaged pupils across England have fallen further behind than their peers. They are on average over two-thirds behind non-disadvantaged students by the age of 16. The worst hit areas in the North- East are Tyneside, urban coastal Northumberland communities and former ”de-industrial” mining towns of Co Durham. As the sociologist Diane Reay notes: ”There remains an entrenched and unbroken correlation between class and educational success.”

For several social scientists, the chief factors for working-class achievement are relative deprivation and material circumstances. In the Newcastle Central parliamentary constituency, over 45% of youngsters experience child poverty, which has clearly had an impact on their educational success or failure. Child poverty has increased both in the north and Midlands. Middlesbrough has a child poverty rate of 41% with a North East regional rate of almost a quarter (24%).

There’s an attainment gap between pupils who receive free school meals (FSM) and those that don’t. 15% of boys getting FSMs do not achieve five ‘good’ GCSEs. Problems at home are partly to blame for poor exam results than schools such as low incomes and ‘faulty socialisation’. As Reay writes: ”We need to look beyond the school gates. There’s only so much that educational institutions can do to improve class inequalities, given the economic and social context in which they operate.”

The stark reality is to many disadvantaged youngsters living in inner-city wards and the outer-council estates are trapped in cold, food insecure and over-crowded housing conditions where there’s little space to do homework. Many lack personal computers or laptops – termed ‘digital exclusion’ – a situation made worse by the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The political scientist Matthew Goodwin put’s it down to ”cultural factors”. In many workless households there’s a lack of strong parental interest, partly reflecting their own ‘bad’ experiences of formal schooling, with an ingrained anti-learning culture. Although this is breaking down amongst stable working- class communities, it’s not in the ”forgotten” de-industrialised places in County Durham, Teeside and West Cumbria. In contrast, as educationalist Robin Simmons notes, middle class professional parents possess the economic and ”social and cultural capital” to get their siblings into the best Russell Group universities and well-paid jobs.

Some scholars such as Stephen Pollard and Lord Adonis put the class attainment gap down to the quality of schooling. Of -course, many schools and post-16 colleges in the region are doing their best, in challenging circumstances, with able and dedicated teachers with an emphasis on inclusive learning. But a fifth of students in the region are in secondary schools rated less than ‘good’ by the inspection body, Ofsted. 

The government’s free market policy measures such as Free Schools and Academies have had little impact. Even former Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw conceded that academisation had failed to transform the ”miserable standards” being achieved in the North. Good schooling can’t eradicate inequality, but it can help to mitigate it. There’s some evidence to support Lord Blunkett’s view that an ‘outstanding or good school’  in a deprived neighbourhood can make a qualitative difference to the life-expectations of its young learners.

 Teachers who are well prepared for lessons. Small class sizes. Teachers who have high expectations and set high standards of pupil behaviour. Teachers who place emphasis on praise rather than blame. Teachers who treat young people with respect and show a genuine interest in their development. But above all, there’s an expectation set by competent, high striving school heads or college principals, who are signed up to strong achieving ethos which promotes self-confidence and self-esteem amongst all learners.

 If we’re serious about closing the class divide in education national government and a prospective regional combined authority must adopt public policies to break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage for every pupil with high-quality childcare and good schools in every community.

This means having a modern childcare system with breakfast clubs in every primary school to give kids the best start. A world class teacher in every classroom, recruiting 6,500 new staff funded by stopping tax breaks for private schools. A wider curriculum which fosters creativity, oral and digital skills that prepare young adults for work and life alongside expanded apprenticeships and skills training to spread opportunity for all. 

The establishment of a regional ‘Learning Challenge’ based on the London model, is a priority together with an assault on home, spacial and neighbourhood-based inequities. In short making the ideals of ”levelling up” and a ”Northern Powerhouse’ a tangible reality.

Contrary to popular belief, the distinctions of class haven’t vanished. It’s these that affect how well children and young people do at school or college, and the future laid out before them.

By Stephen Lambert

Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and is Vice Chair of the Economy, Job and Skills Scrutiny Committee. He writes in a personal capacity.

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