In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, I wrote a reaction piece for this magazine noting, amongst other things, that people qualified to degree level were much more likely to vote Remain (66 per cent voted to stay in the European Union against 29 per cent who voted Leave).
Now that I have had a bit more time to think through the results, I wonder whether maybe this was just because Leave were heavily dependent on older voters, who were much less likely to have gone to university, or on poorer ones. Perhaps the link to education had been overdone?
So I did some analysis of school performance in the 15 local authorities with the highest Leave vote that are also responsible for education. I did the same for Remain’s best areas. I decided to focus only on pupils in receipt of free school meals (FSM) so as to compare like with like.
The gap was even bigger than I had expected. In Leave areas just 29 per cent of those on FSM achieved five good GCSEs with English and Maths last year. In Remain areas the figure was 46 per cent. In other words, a disadvantaged pupil in a Remain area was 58 per cent more likely to meet the standard GCSE benchmark.
Before I get accused of blaming teachers for Brexit, I’m not claiming that this is a causal relationship. How could it be? The vast majority of voters weren’t taught by the current workforce. Instead, my hypothesis is that low school results and a high percentage of Leave votes have some of the same underlying causes.
Take Blackpool, where almost 70 per cent of voters chose Leave, and just 22.7 per cent of FSM pupils got five good GCSEs last year.
Blackpool’s unemployment rate is almost double the national average, as is the number of “looked after” children there. Drug and alcohol abuse are well above national rates.
Qualitative research by Teach First in Blackpool schools has found that teachers have particularly difficulties engaging parents in their children’s education. It has also identified high levels of pupil mobility between schools. Economics explains some of the reasons for Blackpool’s problems – it has been heavily reliant on tourists who are now much more likely to go to Spain or Greece. But some of the reasons are also social. Blackpool doesn’t have a university and, geographically, it’s quite out of the way, being over an hour’s drive from the nearest big city, Manchester.
There is little there for teenagers to do, and it’s hard for them to see routes to more aspirational careers. Compare that with Hackney, which actually has a higher proportion of pupils on FSM, but is at the heart of the capital, surrounded by universities and multinational companies. Here over half of FSM pupils get five good GCSEs and just over 20 per cent of voters chose Leave.
Politicians have been slow to identify these demographic divisions. For decades, resources have been targeted on big cities. In recent years this has started to change. But we need a much greater sense of urgency about dealing with this problem. These areas need strong economic incentives for companies to invest; they need high-quality social housing; they need adequate mental health services. And, of course, they need properly funded schools; with the highest quality teachers and leaders. The new schools funding formula, should it ever happen, needs to target money at these areas.
Moreover, we need to acknowledge that our accountability system does not properly recognise the challenges in these parts of the country. If we want our best people to step up to the challenge, we need to give them the space to do so without the immediate threat of Ofsted and floor targets.
If we continue to fail these communities, the divides we already see will become unbridgeable.
Sam Freedman is executive director of programmes at Teach First and a former government policy adviser