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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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.