It does not take much for figures on social mobility to astound our consciousness. Given one in every six children are still in relative poverty, it seems Britain is still a broadly unequal society. This situation underpins any modern progressive: spurring each of us on in finding solutions to tackle these problems.
Under the last Labour government, unquestionable leaps were taken in education. Whether it be our Education Action Zones or the initial Academies programme, we got it right by targeting the most disadvantaged parts of our education system. It is from this that we can celebrate the so-called “London effect”, which reflects the immensity of investment undertaken in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the capital. However, whilst London and other metropolitan areas have surged, the isolation suffered by many parts of the UK has been ignored. David Bell was quick to warn us of this in 2003, noting that some of our greatest areas of educational disadvantage are located “in towns on the coast or tucked away in a corner of [a] local education authority area”. Worryingly, this trend has not ceased, as these areas have been unable to reap the benefit of national initiatives which have targeted disadvantaged children in urban areas. Although our attitudes seem to be shifting, particularly through the increasing growth of the outstanding TeachFirst program outside of metropolitan areas, we still lack the capacity to inspire children in isolated areas. It is in the coastal towns of this country – where I grew up – that children feel the greatest disconnect. Isolated from parts of the country geographically and economically, it is easy for schools to fall into a cycle of mediocrity.
However, teaching quality is not the only means of encouraging aspiration, and thus achievement, in these areas. Rather, it is time for us to encourage our top professions to play a role in improving the aspirations of children in the most isolated parts of this country. At the moment, some of our professions are doing better than others at engaging talented teenagers to aspire to our nation’s top jobs. The legal profession, for instance, is pointed out by Alan Milburn as being at the “forefront of driving activity aimed at changing access to professional jobs”. This is borne out by the PRIME commitment, through which eighty top law firms have provided talented students with quality work experience schemes. Whilst the majority of schemes take place in London, schemes also take place across the UK, from Liverpool to Cardiff. These schemes can therefore be accessible to individuals in isolated rural areas surrounding these provincial cities. My home town is more than two hours from Newcastle and three hours from Manchester, but I was fortunate to secure a place on a scheme in London.
Personally, I can speak about the value of such schemes, as my time on a PRIME scheme shaped my understanding of the legal sector and aided me in subsequently applying for, and gaining, a training contract at a top City law firm. The causal links are therefore clearly present, as they are self-evident from the experience of myself and others. These schemes not only empower, but they enable students from disadvantaged backgrounds to picture themselves in top professions. This ability to view oneself in a high-performance environment is so important in enabling talented individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to truly aspire to work in these areas. Therefore, it is now time for other professions to emulate the legal sector and establish industry-wide work experience schemes for disadvantaged children not just from the capital, but other parts of the country. Only then can professions like journalism, the higher echelons of which have “shifted to a greater degree of social exclusivity than any other profession”, possibly attract and inspire our best young people, regardless of their socioeconomic background or geography.
Alex McKerrow is a Law Student at the University of Lancaster. He grew up in Whitehaven, Cumbria.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.