‘Shocking’ North-South education divide revealed as teens in three Greater Manchester areas left with NO A-Level options

It’s the time of year when teenagers across Greater Manchester are preparing to take their GCSEs and pondering what comes next in their education. But today The Northern Agenda reveals a ‘shocking’ North-South divide over where young people can enhance their life chances by taking A-Levels.

Analysis of Government data shows there are eight Parliamentary constituencies in England where there are no schools or sixth form colleges, either independent or state-run, offering A-Levels – including Bolton West, Bury South and Stalybridge and Hyde, Tameside.

Of the eight areas – which also include Barnsley East, Blackpool South, Bolsover, Dudley South and Houghton and Sunderland South – all but two are in the North of England. An MP in one of the affected areas said it was ‘unacceptable’ to not have a sixth form in her constitution and that it was vital for young people to have ‘proper opportunities’ locally.

And in Bolton West, one of the areas with no A-Level provision, local Tory MP Chris Green said that having gone to a secondary school with a sixth form: “I am quite surprised by the number of schools without one.” He added: “The constituency does have one school, Rivington and Blackrod, that does provide A-Level courses. Whilst physically outside the constituency, it has always counted because the lower school has always been part of the local educational provision.”

According to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) lobbying group, the Greater Manchester borough of Bury has not a single school with a sixth form, though it does have two further education providers offering other post-16 qualifications.

It was in Bury that earlier this year Christian Wakeford, who defected from the Conservatives to Labour, claimed he was threatened with having funding for a new school in Radcliffe pulled unless he voted with the Government.

The Northern Agenda has analyzed Government data

Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner and now chair of the Commission on Young Lives, said: “It is shocking that some children are growing up in areas of the country where there is no provision for them to study A-Levels and doubly shocking that so many are in the North.

“Yet again, it is evident that whilst talent is everywhere, opportunity is not. Disadvantaged children growing up in the North are less likely to get good A-Level grades and less likely to go to university than their disadvantaged peers in the South East.

“Government must put education front and center of its plans to level up. Children need to be able to rely on an education system that is ambitious for their futures, with the opportunities and support to succeed wherever they live.”

This week the Government’s Education Minister, Alex Burghart, said ‘many more people’ will be choosing apprenticeships, where they get practical experience of a job, over university in the next ten years.

He said: “I taught for a number of years in some wonderful universities… but it was clear not all the students wanted to be there. A number were there by default, because their parents wanted them to be there. Or because they felt they had no other ladders to a good career.”

The Prime Minister’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee, announced last year, will see opportunities created for tens of thousands of people who didn’t get an A-Level or equivalent to study a technical qualification for free.

Chris Green MP has spoken out

Steph Peacock, a former teacher and now Labor MP for Barnsley East, said: “It is unacceptable that there are no sixth form centers or colleges, and therefore no chance to complete A-levels or further education, in Barnsley East.

“It shouldn’t matter if you live in Bristol or Barnsley, every young person deserves the chance to have a fulfilling education, and leave with the essential qualifications and skills they need to be ready for work, life and the future. As a former teacher, I have seen first-hand how important it is that young people are given proper opportunities and life chances.This is far easier to access when it is available in your local area.”

In Lancashire, Conservative MP Scott Benton said his Blackpool South patch ‘is geographically a small constituency and is part of a broader town-wide council’.

He said: “While the constituency doesn’t currently have any schools or colleges offering A-Level courses, Blackpool Sixth Form in neighboring Blackpool North and Cleveleys is a 46-minute trip away from the furthest point of my constituency via public transport.

“Blackpool also has access to practical education and BTECS with some of Blackpool and Fylde’s College campuses found within Blackpool South. Whilst I’d always welcome more institutions offering further education, I do not believe the location of the college to be of great concern to my constituents.”

A-Level results day

Meanwhile, analysis of Government data by The Northern Agenda into the local authority areas with the fewest 16-year-olds going to school sixth form or sixth form college shows that eight of the ‘top ten’ are in the North.

Only 10.7 per cent of Barnsley 16-year-olds go to a sixth form school or sixth form college, compared with the national average of 49.2%. And in Salford, Hartlepool, Knowsley, Halton and South Tyneside and Sunderland, the figure is also lower than one in four.

The 20 local authority areas where the highest proportion of children go on to sixth form – more than two-thirds in every case – are all in London. The findings echo previous analysis by the NPP about sixth form and further education provision in the North. And there are two other neighboring local authority areas, Tameside and Salford, where fewer than 10 per cent of pupils are at a school or college with a sixth form.

As part of the Government’s recent Leveling Up White Paper to tackle regional inequalities 55 so-called ‘education cold spots’ – many of which are in the North – will get extra investment. Struggling schools would be offered more support and new selective sixth-form colleges created.

But NPP director Henri Murison said they ‘aren’t the answer to problems such as poor progress among long-term disadvantaged pupils at secondary school, which is the most significant challenge in education for the North’. He added: “There are some areas of low progress at secondary level, such as Redcar, which have no school sixth form or specific academic post-16 provision for A-Levels, and so the nearest Further Education college is the only option for many local young people.

“However, Redcar has higher-performing primary schools so it doesn’t qualify for the DfE’s new selective sixth form program – just one example of how a national approach fails to appreciate specific local circumstances, as this policy could have really helped.

“More funding and more local control is the best way to ensure the government’s new education investment areas succeed in helping more young people access education and skills opportunities. Selective sixth forms should only be for places that would benefit – not imposed where they aren’t needed.”

The Northern Agenda approached the Department for Education for comment. A spokesman did not issue a comment but referred us to a press release from last month about the recent Schools White Paper which does not mention A-Levels.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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