The widening gap between the educational haves and have nots

Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union, on a new report showing "Two Britains", with the gap between the haves and have nots widening.

Sally Hunt is the General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU)

Analysis by the University and College Union this morning reveals two Britains living side by side – one with access to education and all the benefits that brings and the other without. The contrasts are extreme.

In some constituencies, such as Glasgow North East and Birmingham Hodge Hill, more than one in three people have no qualifications, compared to just one in 50 in others such as Brent North and Romsey and Southampton North.

Looking at the data in more detail highlights the stark contrasts within our cities and counties when it comes to educational attainment. People living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central, for example, are almost twice as likely to have no qualifications, compared to people in neighbouring Newcastle-upon-Tyne North.

Of the 20 constituencies with the highest percentage of people with no qualifications, the West Midlands accounts for eight of them and has four in the top ten. There is a clear east/west divide in London. Of the 20 worst-performing constituencies in the capital, three-quarters are in the east; in contrast, a similar proportion of the best-performing constituencies are in the west.

Educational underachievement costs the country billions every year and we should be doing all we can to encourage people back into learning, not erecting punitive financial barriers. We all have a collective interest in having a better-educated society. People with qualifications tend to be healthier, wealthier and more active citizens.

Government policy will further exacerbate the problems of educational underachievement in those areas already struggling and widen the gap between the educational haves and have nots.

The Education Maintenance Allowance has been slashed, which provided key money for teenagers from the poorest backgrounds to stay in education, and from September, changes to the benefits system will see the government stop funding education for people on ‘inactive’ benefits, which include income support, working families’ tax credit, and housing benefit.

There is no logical reason to deny people on benefits access to the one thing that is likely to improve their life chances and get them off benefits.

A study by the Association of Colleges estimated that 250,000 people – some experts say the number of people affected will be closer to 300,000 – will be hit with fees of between £500 and £1,000 a year and around three-quarters, 185,000, of them will be women. Another shocking element of these plans is that the government doesn’t even know what the full damage will be or how many people will actually be affected.

The government should be making radical changes to help people into education, not slashing their benefits and giving them fewer chances to acquire the skills required to get them back in the jobs market. Those at the wrong end of the table must not be cut even further adrift from those at the top.

The government might view cuts across education as a way to make short-term savings by, but it is just storing up problems for the future. We need to put education back at the centre of plans for recovery and social mobility, not on the periphery.

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