Social mobility: The worst places to grow up poor

By Judith Burns & Adina Campbell
BBC News

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Rhythmical Mike at school assembly
Image caption,
Rhythmical Mike is a successful performer - but says his schooldays were "a nightmare"

"You've got this - the whirlwind that you're in - is the beginning of something wonderfully new - for you."

Rhythmical Mike, a 24-year-old East Midlands poet, performs his work to pupils at Lovers' Lane Primary school in Newark, Nottinghamshire.

It's an area where many children face big challenges and, according to a new State of the Nation report from the Social Mobility Commission, their educational and career prospects are too often limited from the outset.

'Postcode lottery'

It ranks all 324 local authorities in England in terms of the life chances of someone born into a disadvantaged background and it debunks the notion of a simple North-South divide.

Instead, it says, there is a "postcode lottery" with "hotspots" (shown in orange on the map below) and "cold spots" (shown in blue) found in all regions.

The report highlights a "self-reinforcing spiral of ever growing division", with children in some areas getting a poor start in life from which they can never recover.

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West Somerset sits at the bottom of the league table, with average wages less than half those in the best performing parts of London.

There are some surprises, with wealthy areas such as West Berkshire, Cotswold and Crawley performing badly for their most vulnerable residents.

The report explains that wealthy areas can see high levels of low pay, with poorer young people at risk of being "somewhat neglected", particularly if they are scattered around isolated rural schools

Conversely, some of the most deprived areas are "hotspots", providing good education, employment opportunities and housing for their most disadvantaged residents.

These include London boroughs with big deprived populations such as Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham.

In Kensington and Chelsea half of disadvantaged teenagers make it to university, but the figure for the same group in Barnsley, Hastings and Eastbourne is just 10%.

"London and its hinterland are increasingly looking like a different country from the rest of Britain," says Alan Milburn, who chairs the Social Mobility Commission.

"It is moving ahead, as are many of our country's great cities.

"But too many rural and coastal areas and towns of Britain's old industrial heartlands are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially."

Large variations were also found within Scotland and Wales, although the data is not directly comparable with that for England, says the report.

Media caption,
"Not many opportunities": People in the town of Newark share their experiences

'Be inspired'

The East Midlands is the English region with the worst outcomes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, says the report - and within the East Midlands, Newark and Sherwood is the worst performing local authority.

In Newark, only 43% of children are ready for school when they start Reception, compared with 52% nationally, the research finds.

And by adulthood only 21% are in professional or managerial roles, compared with 51% in Oxford.

Mike, real name Mike Markham, has been a poet for about six years, running his own company and playing at festivals, supporting stars like Rizzle Kicks and Russell Brand.

For him, school was a really negative experience. He feels he failed there.

"It was a nightmare," he says, but believes overcoming his early difficulties helped him succeed later in life.

"Anybody can achieve anything," is his message to the children.

He believes that, despite class structures, the world is changing.

"I think you've just got to be driven, you've got to be inspired you've got to be inspiring."

Image caption,
Efforts to improve social mobility need to start early, says the report

The children themselves have big ambitions.

"I want to be a boxer. I want to get to the highest level and be a professional," says one boy.

"I want to be a heart surgeon and to do that I am going to have to get into the best universities there are and I've just got to try and pass all my exams," says a girl.

But head teacher Jenny Hodgkinson says too many parents are caught between low pay and rising living costs and are working so hard simply to put food on the table, that they often lack time and energy to focus on their children's schooling.

"There's a lot of challenges facing families at the moment," she says.

"In terms of working more than one job, people with low income aren't time rich.

"They want to do the best for their children and they work ever so hard but they don't always have the resources to do what they need to."

"It can be difficult trying to earn a living in this town," says parent Sian Mclachlan.

'Few opportunities'

In the town centre, one young woman complained of few opportunities for young people.

"If there's a good job going it will be gone within a week or so," she adds.

"I've got job security," says one young man. "But I could be doing a lot more. I took better money where I should have gone to college - but you're not really pushed in this area."

The school is making great efforts to improve children's mental health, resilience and self-esteem, along with extra reading support and individual mentoring.

It is working to draw in families, with classes to improve parents' basic skills which can help improve attitudes to education and boost their children's attendance.

Ms Mclachlan says workshops on CV writing, job interviews and money management are also on offer.

But the report warns of "mind-blowing inconsistency" in efforts to improve social mobility.

"Tinkering around the edges will not do the trick," says Mr Milburn.

"The analysis in this report substantiates the sense of political alienation and social resentment that so many parts of Britain feel."

He wants "a new level of effort to tackle the phenomenon of left-behind Britain" and urges the government to increase spending on regions that most need it.

For example, estimates suggest that the North of England is £6bn underfunded compared with London.

Media caption,
Alan Milburn: "Your chances of getting on really depend on where you're born and where you live"

His recommendations include:

  • all councils to develop a strategy for boosting disadvantaged children's prospects
  • all councils to pay the living wage
  • greater efforts to attract teachers to poorer regions
  • struggling schools to develop partnerships with successful schools to boost attainment
  • fairer transport funding, including transport subsidies for poor young people in rural areas

Education Secretary Justine Greening said the findings underlined "the importance of focusing our efforts in more disadvantaged areas where we can make the biggest difference".

"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.

"We are also boosting salaries through the introduction of the National Living Wage, creating more full-time, permanent jobs and investing £9bn in affordable housing. Taken together, this won't just change individual lives, it will help transform our country into a fairer society."