Research published today has revealed a "postcode lottery” of educational achievement, with the gap widening between “underachieving” areas and those which are traditionally strong in terms of education.
The news is likely to come as a surprise to many, given that £1.9 billion has been spent on widening university participation since 2005.
The shocking statistics are found in a report published by the University and College Union (UCU), entitled Location, Location, Location – the widening education gap in Britain and how where you live determines your chances. It analyses educational achievement by parliamentary constituency in England, Scotland and Wales and ranks each according to the percentage of people with at least some qualifications and the percentage of people with a degree or above.
The report shows that as more people go to university, well-performing constituencies have continued to enjoy success but the constituencies at the bottom of the pile have seen academic achievement decline.
In the 20 constituencies with the lowest level of participation in higher education in 2008, the proportion, on average, of the working age population with a degree-level qualification or above fell from 12.6 per cent in 2005 to 12.1 per cent in 2008.
However, in the 20 constituencies with the highest level of participation in higher education, the proportion increased from 48.8 per cent in 2005 to 57.2 per cent in 2008. The national average is 29 per cent.
The UCU, which represents academic and teaching staff in further and higher education, warned that the current divide between “haves and have-nots” was growing and said that it “is a challenge to all the parties”.
“Education holds the key to improving social mobility, tackling poverty and extending opportunity for all” said UCU's General Secretary Sally Hunt, “Educational underachievement already costs our country £18 billion a year and I hope this report acts as a wakeup call to politicians of all parties to recognise the power of education to change people’s lives”.
The report shows enormous regional variations. The four constituencies with the lowest number of people with any qualifications are all in the West Midlands.
In the Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath constituency, 37 per cent of people have no qualifications, putting it in the 'bottom' place on the table. Next comes Wolverhampton South East with 36 per cent - which, ironically, is represented by Business, Skills and Innovation Minister, Pat McFadden. The national average is 12.4 per cent.
The research also warns that while London attracts the highest number of graduates, the city has many areas where a substantial percentage of the working age population have no qualifications at all, “making access to education in the capital a true tale of two cities”.