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.

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“I felt very lonely”: addressing the untold story of isolation among young mothers

With one in five young mothers lonely “all the time”, it’s time for employers and services to step up.

“Despite having my child with me all the time, I felt very lonely,” says Laura Davies. A member of an advisory panel for the Young Women’s Trust, she had her son age 20. Now, with a new report suggesting that one in five young mums “feels lonely all the time”, she’s sharing her story.

Polling commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust has highlighted the isolation that young motherhood can bring. Of course, getting out and about the same as you did before is never easy once there’s a young child in the picture. For young mothers, however, the situation can be particularly difficult.

According to the report, over a quarter of young mothers leave the house just once a week or less, with some leaving just once a month.

Aside from all the usual challenges – like wrestling a colicky infant into their jacket, or pumping milk for the trip with one hand while making sure no-one is crawling into anything dangerous with the other – young mothers are more likely to suffer from a lack of support network, or to lack the confidence to approach mother-baby groups and other organisations designed to help. In fact, some 68 per cent of young mothers said they had felt unwelcome in a parent and toddler group.

Davies paints what research suggests is a common picture.

“Motherhood had alienated me from my past. While all my friends were off forging a future for themselves, I was under a mountain of baby clothes trying to navigate my new life. Our schedules were different and it became hard to find the time.”

“No one ever tells you that when you have a child you will feel an overwhelming sense of love that you cannot describe, but also an overwhelming sense of loneliness when you realise that your life won’t be the same again.

More than half of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed said that they felt lonelier since becoming a mother, with more than two-thirds saying they had fewer friends than before. Yet making new friends can be hard, too, especially given the judgement young mothers can face. In fact, 73 per cent of young mothers polled said they’d experienced rudeness or unpleasant behaviour when out with their children in public.

As Davies puts it, “Trying to find mum friends when your self-confidence is at rock bottom is daunting. I found it easier to reach out for support online than meet people face to face. Knowing they couldn’t judge me on my age gave me comfort.”

While online support can help, however, loneliness can still become a problem without friends to visit or a workplace to go to. Many young mothers said they would be pleased to go back to work – and would prefer to earn money rather than rely on benefits. After all, typing some invoices, or getting back on the tills, doesn’t just mean a paycheck – it’s also a change to speak to someone old enough to understand the words “type”, “invoice” and “till”.

As Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton explains, “More support is needed for young mothers who want to work. This could include mentoring to help ease women’s move back into education or employment.”

But mothers going back to work don’t only have to grapple with childcare arrangements, time management and their own self-confidence – they also have to negotiate with employers. Although the 2003 Employment Act introduced the right for parents of young children to apply to work flexibly, there is no obligation for their employer to agree. (Even though 83 per cent of women surveyed by the Young Women’s Trust said flexible hours would help them find secure work, 26 per cent said they had had a request turned down.)

Dr Easton concludes: “The report recommends access to affordable childcare, better support for young women at job centres and advertising jobs on a flexible, part-time or job share basis by default.”

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland