Current models of education and social mobility take an individualist approach that encourage young people from rural areas and small towns to move to city centres to obtain qualifications and skills. But this approach worsens regional inequalities, as places outside of urban centres are left behind. In this article, from our Power in Place publication, Dr Eric Lybeck asks what could change if we took a different direction – one that focuses instead on place?
- Nowadays we see an increasing number of graduates competing for a shrinking number of employment opportunities concentrated in expensive parts of rapidly growing cities.
- Policymakers should encourage local place-based strategies that link new educational provision to new work patterns and opportunities for all.
- Multi-directional mobility patterns should allow young people to move back and forth between city and town, following emergent opportunities without sacrificing income or quality of life.
Places, not people, have been ‘deskilled’
The current model for education policy revolves around individual students accessing educational opportunities that are thought to lead to higher income in later life. While this correlation held during the massive post-war increase of professions in need of expert knowledge, the expansive growth in graduate-level jobs plateaued long ago.
Consequently, today we see ever more graduates competing for a shrinking number of employment opportunities concentrated in expensive parts of rapidly growing cities. This in turn compounds regional imbalances as young people are compelled to leave places with fewer work opportunities to obtain qualifications and employment in city centres. The resulting pattern amounts to long-term deskilling of entire ‘left behind’ places, not people.
Youth flight in North-West England
Comparing the changes in graduate and young populations between 2011 and 2021 through Census data demonstrates this trend well. Cities like Manchester and Liverpool, with large universities and growing economies, have seen increases of 10,000 to 20,000 graduates and young people.
This compares to neighbouring areas like Sefton or Oldham that have seen much more modest increases in the numbers of graduates and young people. And some places like Halton and Warrington have experienced a decrease of young people entirely. These places are therefore getting further and further left behind in terms of skills and capacities, making it that much harder for these places to catch up and diversify economically. This discrepancy highlights the vicious cycle through which our individualist approach to educational policy can, in fact, cause regional inequalities.
The Levelling Up white paper, for example, recommends further public money to be spent in ‘Education Investment Areas’ to “ensure talented children form disadvantaged backgrounds have access to the highest standard of education this country offers”. But, if one such student in Oldham or Sefton obtained high marks on national standardised exams, they would, quite sensibly, follow their peers to where the universities and graduate level jobs are. thus, last decade, we saw a considerable increase of young people and graduates in Manchester/Salford and Liverpool compared to their neighbouring boroughs to the North, East and West.
Co-developing place-based educational strategies for civic renewal
To disrupt this vicious cycle, we need to shed individualist social mobility assumptions and encourage local place-based strategies that link new educational provision to new work patterns and opportunities for all. No one-size-fits-all solution will work because these left behind places are not simply the observe of advantaged city centres benefitting from economic growth and highly educated graduates.
The long-term patterns of change in seaside towns along the Wirral and Sefton coasts are very different form those at the feet of the Pennines in Oldham and Rochdale. The latter have exhibited post-industrial decline across decades due to historic links to the production and commerce in industrial Manchester. Coastal communities are not experiencing decline due to deindustrialisation but because of the growth of package holidays and cheap air travel. Both places have developed around low-skilled work alongside the deskilling of the available local workforce, but for different reasons. Each requires a different strategy to diversify their existing economies.
The nature of present imbalances complicates this task because many of the jobs and businesses that could fill these places are not widespread. We often seen a chicken-and-egg scenario in place, where emerging businesses hesitate to relocate to towns without skilled workforces, and educational institutions find it difficult to invest in these skills without a local employer to create a realistic demand for those skills in the area.
A balance should therefore be struck between consultation with the existing local populations and stakeholders about what they would like to see and what types of work, education and places are thriving in similar and different places. National policymakers and educationalists could facilitate sharing of best practices between, for example, seaside towns and post-industrial towns. Ultimately, each place needs resources to develop their own long-term educational strategies to instigate new economic, cultural, and civic renewal locally.
Less competition, more coordination
As these regional patterns above reveal, we must move away from a competitive system wherein some individuals or local authorities succeed at the expense of their neighbours. Thus, place-based policy would require more regional coordination to integrate different local strategies. While there are many emerging opportunities in digital technologies, if every outer borough pursued the same ‘creative and digital’ strategy and limited educational provision to coding – the most likely skill to be automated in the next decade – we will have failed to turn the wheel.
Rather, we need to see different functions spread around different regions – in patterns akin to those that developed during the industrial revolution. As 19th century Manchester shifted roles from being a production centre to a commercial hub, like spokes on a wheel, Oldham became the centre of cotton spinning, while Bolton was known for its fine yarn, Macclesfield was known for silk making and so on. So, as we re-engineer our city centres around digital and creative media clusters, we must retain a view of these historically significant adjacent places that surely have roles to play in our regional futures.
We need to encourage multi-directional mobility patterns that allow young people to move back and forth between city and town, following emergent opportunities without sacrificing income or quality of life. Hybrid working patterns post-COVID-19 could facilitate this, but this requires investment in infrastructure and know-how. Pursuit of such place-based solutions are, however, realistic and necessary, particularly after decades of individualist policies that have further widened regional inequalities.
This article was originally published in Power in Place, a collection of thought leadership pieces and expert analysis providing evidence-led solutions for thriving and sustainable communities.
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