The team will focus on Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, although statistics will cover the wider South West region.

Major new research project aims to address social mobility issues blighting young lives in the South West

A major new research project will seek to highlight and address the social mobility issues blighting young lives in the South West.

A group of experts will suggest regional and local solutions to tackle issues such as the region’s huge GCSE and primary level attainment gaps. On many social mobility measures the South West performs worse than other regions.

In recent years Government attention has been focused on economic and social mobility issues in the North. It is hoped the initiative – led by academics and educational experts from the region – will mean attention now shifts to the specific needs of the South West.

The project will identify the particular challenges facing the region and examine if innovative practices elsewhere in the country could be effective, particularly those caused by pockets of significant rural and urban disadvantage. Work will focus on the barriers faced at different life stages for younger generations, especially those aged under 25

Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, who is leading the project, said: “For those growing up poor, where you grow up in the country matters hugely for your life outcomes. 60 per cent of disadvantaged pupils in the South West didn’t obtain a pass in GCSE Maths and English in 2019 – a crucial qualification for accessing most jobs. This compares with 41 per cent in Inner London.

“The extent of social mobility problems in the South West has been hugely overlooked. People think of the South West as affluent and picture postcard perfect. But actually, although the region has lower than average rates of deprivation, it provides extremely poor outcomes for disadvantaged young people growing up locally.”

The project is based at the University of Exeter’s Graduate School of Education, which hosts the University’s Centre for Social Mobility. Initial funding is being generously provided by the Cobalt Trust. The project team comprises Professor Elliot Major, Professor Will Harvey, from the Exeter Business School, and Anne-Marie Sim, Postdoctoral Research Associate. ​They will be supported by an advisory board comprising Sir Steve Smith (Chair), former Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Exeter, Stephen Dawson, Chair of the Cobalt Trust, founder and former Chair of Impetus, Mary Curnock Cook, former Chief Executive of UCAS, and Dame Suzi Leather, former Chair of the Charity Commission.

Sir Steve Smith said: “Understanding regional and local dynamics is crucial to understanding why a region is failing to provide good life outcomes for its disadvantaged young people. And only regional and local strategies and initiatives can effectively address the specific challenges a region or area might be facing.”

The work will start with research to map social mobility in the South West. The second part of the project will involve assessing potential paths forward to improve social mobility as the region emerges from deeper inequalities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Existing statistics show:

  • In the South West, 40 per cent of disadvantaged pupils passed English and maths at GCSE in 2019 – the lowest percentage of all English regions. This compared with 59 per cent in Inner London.
  • The South West has some of the largest attainment gaps in the country at the end of primary school. Nationally, disadvantaged pupils are on average 9.3 months behind their non-disadvantaged peers,but in Somerset they are 12.5 months behind.
  • The South West has 4 out of the 10 local authorities with the largest attainment gaps in the country at 16-19: North Somerset, Torbay, Swindon and South Gloucestershire. In these areas, gaps are equivalent to between 4.1 and 4.8 A level grades.
  • Only 18 per cent of disadvantaged children in the South West enter higher education by age 19 – the lowest of all English regions. The higher education participation rate for disadvantaged children in London is now higher than that for non-disadvantaged children in the region.
  • Disadvantaged young people in the region face a double bind of poor mobility prospects and a poor earnings outlook. The South West ranks third worst of 19 regions for upward occupational mobility, whilst having five of the top-25 below-Living-Wage local authorities (with between 33 per cent and 41 per cent of jobs below Living Wage).
  • West Somerset has the lowest social mobility ranking of all local authority districts in England.

The research will look at how the South West compares to other parts of the country for educational achievement and social mobility, the distinctive challenges in the region, and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It will examine if potential regional and local initiatives - for example children’s zones, tutoring, and increased education-workplace links - could improve social mobility.

The team will focus on Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, although statistics will cover the wider South West region. They will examine in particular three areas - West Somerset, Plymouth, and Redruth and Camborne.

The team hope that the research will attract the funding and piloting of initiatives to improve social mobility in the South West. They also aim to carry out further phases of work to develop and assess regional and local strategies and initiatives.

Date: 29 June 2021

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