Polls show that low educational attainment and a feeling of being “left behind” are common among Ukip voters. A 2013 YouGov survey found that over half of Ukip voters had left school at 16, compared to 37 per cent of all voters. They were also half as likely as the average voter to go to university: just 13 per cent have a degree. This feeling of falling behind could spread to the children of Ukip voters, too: many of Britain’s worst-performing schools are found in the party’s strongholds.
Failing schools used to be concentrated in the inner cities but this has changed. Late last month, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published findings showing that disadvantaged pupils in inner London are 21 percentage points more likely to achieve five GCSEs, including English and maths, at grade C and above than those elsewhere in England. And this is not just the “London effect”: the report also noted “improvements in other large cities across England, such as Birmingham and Manchester”.
In the past 15 years, efforts to improve education have given priority to big cities, through schemes such as London Challenge and Excellence in Cities. Both academies and the Teach First programme, which encourages top graduates to teach in struggling schools, were designed with the inner cities in mind.
Away from England’s biggest cities, the picture is different. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, recently described pupils in coastal areas as “invisible”. Take Great Yarmouth, a coastal town in Norfolk. Here, 47 per cent of all pupils are at schools that Ofsted describes as “unsatisfactory” or in need of improvement. Five years ago, 33 per cent of pupils attended such schools. Compare this to London, where 16 per cent of pupils are in schools that are either unsatisfactory or require improvement, a fall from 29 per cent in 2009.
Last month, the Department for Education named the areas with the worst GCSE results. The three poorest performers – Great Yarmouth, Waveney and Norwich – are all in East Anglia. In 2013, less than 47.5 per cent of the pupils in these three areas gained five GCSEs, including English and maths, at grade C or above.
The poor quality of state education supports Ukip’s wider argument that outside our cities, large parts of the country have been neglected. “We’re left out of everything,” says Matthew Smith, a county councillor and Ukip’s parliamentary candidate for Great Yarmouth. “It could be schools, it could be policing, it could be hospitals. Everything seems to boil down to being left out and forgotten. We’re at the end of the line and no one’s interested in us.” The Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth, Brandon Lewis, also refers to the sensation of being at the “end of the line”: clearly, the notion resonates.
Such feelings have driven Ukip’s surge in popularity. Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Waveney all fall in the area of the east coast where Ukip recorded its best results in local elections in 2013 and 2014. Ukip gained more votes than any other party in wards in Great Yarmouth in 2013, and it is one of its top target seats for next year’s general election.
The links between failing schools and Ukip may run deeper. If low educational attainment correlates with Ukip support, as Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin argue convincingly in their book Revolt on the Right, the struggling schoolchildren of today in Great Yarmouth could end up becoming the Ukip voters of tomorrow.