Graham Biggs and Nik Harwood

#LevellingUp The British Countryside – We’re not doing enough to make it the greatest place in the world to grow up 

Earlier this year, former culture secretary Baroness Morgan declared the Government’s vision for Britain to be ‘the greatest place in the world to grow up’.

Realising that ambition, however, means equipping the younger generation with the opportunities they need to flourish – perhaps most importantly in their access to education.

For those living in busy urban centres, that’s not in doubt. If your home is in a city, you’ll likely have plenty of options on your doorstep.

But what if you don’t have plenty of options on your doorstep?

That’s the reality for many young people. There are distinct challenges that come with living in rural and isolated areas, especially with regard to sixth form colleges. Rural pupils, on average, are achieving better grades in Maths and English GCSEs but fewer go on to higher education than their city counterparts. Rural England’s analysis of official statistics shows that only 45.5 per cent of rural students went on to Higher Education compared to 50.9% from state-funded mainstream schools and colleges in predominantly urban areas, and 50 per cent nationally

Similar outcomes can be found in Further Education. A report by Rural England in 2017 found that only half of pupils in rural areas can get to an FE institution ‘in a reasonable travel time’. These pupils not only generally live further away from colleges than their urban peers, but the absence of a statutory concessionary travel scheme means that reduced price travel for FE students is patchy and subject to change. Young learners are therefore missing out, or paying an average 20 per cent rural premium to travel to their college compared with their urban counterparts. 

Research for the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) found similarly bleak stark geographical inequalities in the choices of post-GCSE study for young people. According to the SMC, 20 areas of the country have little or no school sixth form provision within a commutable distance. Unsurprisingly, in these areas significantly lower percentages of pupils study academic qualifications at 16, attend a top university or take a science or maths degree.

Regional discrepancies are vast

In London, young people have, on average, 12 post-GCSE institutions to choose from. But if you venture only a tad further afield, the regional discrepancies are vast. Students in the North East and the South West regions only have an average of seven colleges or sixth forms they could commute to – their choices slashed in half.

This distinct lack of choice is limiting rural pupils and preventing them from realising their ambitions. A Rural Services Network online survey carried out in 2018 found that 42 per cent of respondents across the UK believed 16 – 18-year-olds in their rural communities had no choice of schools or colleges. What this means in reality is that the budding artist, engineer or actor may not have access to the best course to foster their abilities and encourage their talents.

There has been much talk of ‘levelling-up’ from this Government, and it’s an admirable sentiment, but it shouldn’t just be focused on the north–south divide. Ministers should pay more attention to the rural-urban divide and insist on adequate investment in opportunities for rural students. Only then can we become the greatest place in the world to grow up.

Graham Biggs, Chief Executive of the Rural Services Network and Nik Harwood, Chief Executive of Young Somerset 

Graham is a leading voice on all things rural and previously taken part in a discussion on BBC Radio 5 Live about opportunities for young people in rural areas.

Nik has worked in children and young people’s services in Somerset for more than 19 years.

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