Proposed development of London's skyline. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.
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If you want to go to university, you’re better off poor in London than rich anywhere else

Reports show that London schools are outperforming the rest of the country. And it’s not just London - the “city effect” is improving results in Birmingham and Manchester too.

Moving to London to escape a childhood of rural poverty, English folklore’s Dick Whittington traded the countryside for the capital hoping to make his fortune. After a meagre country upbringing, he flourished in the city where “the streets were paved with gold” and became Lord Mayor of London three times. Despite how, over recent decades, such rags to riches stories have been damaged by the reality of poverty and deprivation in Britain’s inner-cities, the Department of Education’s latest statistics suggest that Dick Whittington might have had the right idea after all.

Recent reports show that London schools are outperforming the rest of England. Sixty one per cent of inner-London sixth form students go on to university, as opposed to a 53 per cent national average. London’s success is even more striking when it comes to students eligible for Free School Meals: 63 per cent of poorer Londoners go on to higher education, a higher percentage than that of richer students in any other region. Due to “the London effect”, there’s a better chance of achieving 5 GCSEs at C-A* in Croydon than in Cornwall, and if you’re in a state-school and want to go to university, you’re better off poor in London than rich anywhere else.

And London is not the only city success story. The NS’s David Kirkby writes that, despite “major disparities” remaining, there is a “pattern of renewal” in the demographics of England’s major cities. Figures show a similarly optimistic pattern in education. On investigating London’s astounding GCSE results, a governmental summary states: “Similar improvements, though slightly smaller and later, can also be seen in Birmingham and Manchester.” The London effect is the beginning of a “city effect”.

While there is still an attainment gap between national and regional capitals, the gap between cities and the rest of the country is growing at an accelerated pace. Figures show fewer sixth form students to be entering higher education in smaller cities, like Portsmouth (28 per cent), and towns, like Swindon (33 per cent). The geography of educational deprivation is fragmenting. London, Birmingham and Manchester surge even further ahead at GCSE, where students eligible for free school meals are more successful than anywhere else, largely due to increased attainment in primary school. Clearly, city schools still require improvement, and the streets of England’s inner-cities are still far from Dick Whittington’s golden pavements – but in terms of education, they are outshining everywhere else.

There are many reasons for their success, from romance to racial diversity, to how cities are drawing graduates, teachers and pushy parents. However, the root of the problem lies deeper than the actions of any individual group in society. Each group shares a common characteristic: ambition. Be they the middle class driven by expectation, or recent immigrants driven by necessity, the origin of urban academic success is that cities attract the aspirational. As the social and financial hubs of the country, cities have a natural appeal for the ambitious. Aspiration is built into the very architecture – with high-rises, as with high-flyers, the sky’s the limit.

This leaves poorer students in less urban areas at the greatest risk of falling through the attainment gap. Fiona Rawes, Director of Community Impact at Teach First, believes that “for many poorer children living outside of cities, an absence of opportunity and aspiration puts an end to ambition at too early an age.” Given that students surrounded by fewer examples of scholarly success have fewer opportunities to experience its benefits, and considering that many live “against a backdrop of long-term unemployment and persistent underachievement”, academic attainment can seem understandably irrelevant to life outside of the classroom. However, Rawes remains hopeful: “A culture of aspiration is hard to maintain … but it is not impossible.”

The attainment gap is a product of a cultural difference between the city and the country, and so finding an effective legislative solution is difficult. However, hope comes in that the attainment gap has provided an impetus for collective social action on both a local and national scale. The revealed influence of primary education on GCSE results validates the work of regional initiatives already in existence, such as ARCh Oxfordshire, a network of volunteers teaching literacy to struggling students in local primary schools. On a national scale, the Fair Education Alliance, an alliance of 25 organisations including Teach First, Barnardo’s and Save the Children, was launched 20 June 2014. The FEA is committed to collectively finding long-term solutions to this “stagnating map of educational inequality” from primary school through to university. If these, and other collective efforts are successful, there remains a chance that Dick Whittington will be able to stay at home.

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.