The recent report from researchers at the University of Bristol, “Reversing the Educational Inequality crisis in Bristol”, is shocking but sadly not a surprise to anyone with a knowledge of education in south Bristol.
It clearly sets out the gaps in provision and opportunity for young people in my constituency compared to more affluent areas of the city. The report shows how the this lack of post-16 provision has an impact on the chances of young people going on to university – with far fewer students going on to higher education than predicted by their GCSE results.
This is an appalling waste of potential and something I’ve been working to change since becoming the MP for Bristol South.
But the issue isn’t just about access to university. Young people in south Bristol are also not gaining access to the highest quality apprenticeships in engineering, construction and IT, nor are they getting other training that would improve their life chances.
There is much that must be done.
The fragmentation of the education system does not make it an easy challenge to tackle, with no one body leading the charge. That is why I have sought to bring the key providers together over the past three years and continue to highlight these issues.
This summer I meet with Headteachers from all the secondary schools in my constituency and the Principals of both St Brendan’s Sixth Form College and City of Bristol College. I wanted to see how we can work together better to ensure all young people in Bristol South fulfil their potential. A key issue is pastoral support to young people post-16 who struggle with the transition and subsequently drop down a level or drop out of education altogether.
Other factors that have a critical impact include the government’s failing GCSE resits policy, with compulsory re-sits for English and Maths ultimately damaging motivation which can lead to students dropping out of college altogether.
Lack of investment in schools and colleges is also making it much harder to address educational inequality. Figures show that spending per student in school sixth forms is the lowest it has been since 2002. The cuts to Further Education colleges have been severe. Taking away the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) from 16 year olds by the Coalition Government was disgraceful and must be reversed.
Young people now have many more options at aged 16 but the system is complex. A lack of quality careers advice and understanding of those choices, alongside poor transport links, means that they often lack the information to make the right choice for them. Many parents and carers struggle to know how best to support their children through an ever changing education system.
Improved communications between educational providers could go some way to helping students experience a smoother transition to further and higher education. I also believe there is a real opportunity for the Bristol City Council-led Learning City Partnership – which brings all providers and local leaders together to address the city’s skills challenge – to pool resources and insights to ensure that educational inequality in Bristol South is properly tackled after years of oversight.
High quality careers advice and support must be a key focus. Apprenticeships and jobs fairs are a good way of connecting local employers with young people seeking opportunities to further their careers, demonstrated by the huge success of the events I have organised at the Skills Academy in Hengrove Park over the last two years. The delivery of the long awaited Construction Centre, also at Hengrove, will make a significant contribution to better quality training.
The report calls for an educational board to oversee its recommendations – including ensuring equal opportunities are available to all, and holding FE institutions accountable for increasing the number of students from wards where young people are underachieving. The Learning City Partnership already has much of this within its remit and – with representatives from the West of England Authority and Bristol City Council – seems like it could be the right vehicle to take the agenda forward.
There is no need to create another layer of bureaucracy.
The challenge for me is make sure local and national policy makers make addressing the educational inequality crisis facing young people an educational priority. To ensure that in five years time we are not reading another report on how young people in Bristol continue to be let down by the system.
I will keep pushing Bristol’s educational and political leadership to ensure Bristol South is given the particular attention it needs to reduce the shameful inequality gap so clearly highlighted in this report.
Original posted 12th October 2018.