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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.