Britain is facing a “stark social mobility lottery” as the country’s richest regions offer the worst prospects for poor children, a new report reveals.
Many of the richest areas in the England deliver worse outcomes for their disadvantaged children than places that are much poorer, placing the country in the grip of a “self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing decision”, according to findings by the Social Mobility Commission.
The report uncovers a striking geographical divide, with London and its surrounding areas sustaining largely high levels of social mobility, while many other parts of the country are being left behind economically and “hollowed out” socially.
Scotland and Wales also have stark inconsistencies, with a considerable difference in education attainment between pupils on free school meals and others in Wales, and every major Scottish city outside Edinburgh reporting below-average figures on the indicators.
Based on a ranking of local authorities in terms of their prospects for disadvantaged children, the report reveals more than half (51 per cent) of London children on free school meals achieve A* to C in English and maths GCSE, compared with an average of 36 per cent of children on free school meals in all other English regions.
Westminster is the highest performing region, with 63 per cent of poorer children getting good English and maths GCSEs, while the worst is the Isle of Wight — where only 27 per cent do.
The findings also reveal stark difference in the proportion of young people who go to university. In Kensington and Chelsea, 50 per cent of disadvantaged youngsters go into higher education, while in Hastings, Barnsley and Eastbourne, the university participation rate for this group falls to just 10 per cent.
Debunking the assumption that a simple north/south divide exists, the research suggests there are places that offer good opportunities for social progress – which the researchers call “hotspots” – and those that do not – coldspots – in almost every part of the country. London dominates the hotspots, while the East and West Midlands are the worst performing regions.
The index finds that the worst-performing areas for social mobility are no longer inner city areas, but remote rural or coastal areas and former industrial areas, especially in the Midlands.
Youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds who live there face far higher barriers than those who grow up in cities and their surrounding areas – and they go onto face lower rates of pay, fewer top jobs and travel-to-work times nearly four times those of urban residents.
This is shown by the fact that in 71 areas, most of which are rural, more than 30 per cent of people earn below the voluntary living wage, with average wages in the worst performing area, West Somerset, at £312 a week - less than half of the best performing areas of London, Wandsworth, Richmond upon Thames and Westminster.
The Rt Hon Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said: “The country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one. There is a stark social mobility lottery in Britain today.
“London and its hinterland are increasingly looking like a different country from the rest of Britain. It is moving ahead, as are many of our country’s great cities. But too many rural and coastal areas and the towns of Britain’s old industrial heartlands are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially.
“Tinkering around the edges will not do the trick. The analysis in this report substantiates the sense of political alienation and social resentment that so many parts of Britain feel. A new level of effort is needed to tackle the phenomenon of left-behind Britain.
“Overcoming the divisions that exist in Britain requires far more ambition and far bigger scale. A less divided Britain will require a more redistributive approach to spreading education, employment and housing prospects across our country.”
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner accused Theresa May of failing to meet her pledge to “look after ordinary working families”, adding that the consequences were "stark".
“In every area the Commission has highlighted, the Tories’ record is one of failure. They made clear that support in the early years is critical to the life chances of the most disadvantaged children," she said.
"Yet this Sure Start funding has been cut by half, nurseries are in crisis and the Chancellor has just pocketed a £750m under-spend on childcare rather than invest in our kids.
“The consequences are stark. The country is becoming more divided, with the life chances of the poorest dependent on their postcode. The Prime Minister promised to put look after ordinary working families, but this report shows how badly she is failing.”
Eleanor Briggs, head of policy and research at Action for Children, echoed her concerns, saying: “Sadly this report highlights yet more evidence of the inequality young people face. As they walk into school on their first day, nearly half of disadvantaged children are already on the back foot.
“Being behind their peers in basic communication and social skills is a disadvantage many will find difficult to overcome as they progress through school and into working life.
"Without real investment in evidence-based, early help services that give children in areas of most need the best start in life, this spiral of inequality will continue for generations to come.”
Education Secretary Justine Greening meanwhile said: “The findings of the Social Mobility Commission underline the importance of focusing our efforts in more disadvantaged areas where we can make the biggest difference. By working to boost attainment and opportunity – both inside and outside the classroom – we want to help all young people in those areas fulfil their potential.
"Our Opportunity Areas programme is developing evidence-based approaches to tackle entrenched underperformance alongside wider investment to improve early numeracy, literacy, and teacher recruitment in areas that need it most, as well as working with businesses locally to raise sights and broaden horizons for young people.
“We are making progress - there are now 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. Disadvantaged young people are entering universities at record rates, and the attainment gap between them and their peers has narrowed."
She added that the Government is also boosting salaries through the introduction of the National Living Wage, creating more full-time, permanent jobs and investing £9 billion in affordable housing.
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