North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Why does this North East constituency offer no A-level education?

The Sunderland constituency of Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Philipson is one of only eight in England without a school or college offering children the opportunity to study for A-levels, research by the Northern Agenda newsletter has revealed.

Ms Phillipson told Northern Agenda that the position in places like hers without schools or sixth form colleges offering A-levels was ‘shocking’.

However, a closer look at the evolution of parliamentary boundaries reveals that the position is not straightforward, as a statement by Sunderland City Council (below) makes clear.

Six of the eight constituencies found not to offer A-level teaching are in the north and the other two in the Midlands. Ms Phillipson’s seat of Houghton and Sunderland South is the only one in the North East.

Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner and now chair of the Commission on Young Lives, told Northern Agenda: ‘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. Government must put education front and centre of its plans to level up.’

Ms Phillipson told Northern Agenda: ‘Education is about opportunity. Yet after 12 years of Conservative government these shocking figures show how many children are still denied the chances they need by virtue of where they come from.

‘It couldn’t be clearer that they are failing our children. Labour is on your side, we’re determined no young person should have to leave their community to get on in life.’

COMMENT

There are 533 parliamentary constituencies in England, including 158 in the three northern regions of North East, North West and Yorkshire & Humber. Of these, 29 are in the North East. As Northern Agenda shows, eight of the 533 have no school or college teaching A-levels, and six of the eight are in the north, including one – Houghton and Sunderland South – in the North East.

That means 525 constituencies in England, 152 in the north and 28 in the North East do have six-form teaching. Why should Houghton and Sunderland South be one of the very few that do not?

Ms Phillipson’s lazy partisan response is to point the finger at 12 years of Conservative government, with the clear implication that it is local government austerity – the cuts – during that time which is to blame. How justified is she?

All 533 constituencies have been subjected to cuts to some degree, but not all to the same degree. Research* by Mia Gray and Anna Barford of Cambridge University found that between 2009-10 and 2016-17 cities and local governments in the very north of England saw the most severe cuts and the more deprived areas tended to correlate with bigger cuts in service spending. But London was also badly affected.

Places deriving a comparatively large proportion of their budgets from government grants tended to cut most severely, including Newcastle, the Liverpool-Leeds corridor and in London.

This pattern was clear in many London boroughs and cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Oldham, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Nottingham and Doncaster,  wrote Gray and Barford. All received a high proportion of their funding from the central grant, and experienced cuts of over 25% to total service spending. The south central part of the country experienced the smallest spending cuts.

On average English local government reduced spending on services by 24% between 2009-10 and 2016-17 and the median reduction was 23%.

Where does Sunderland fit into this picture? It was certainly badly affected by austerity cuts, but actually not as badly as most local authorities. Gray and Barford found that service spending in the city fell by about 20% during that period, which was below the national average and the third smallest among the 12 local authorities in the North East. South Tyneside suffered spending cuts of around 45% and Gateshead around 44%. Only Stockton and Darlington suffered less than Sunderland.

Sunderland, which has three parliamentary constituencies, faces the challenge of providing at least three schools or colleges providing A-level education if it is to meet the benchmark set by Northern Agenda – an expense matched only by Newcastle’s in the North East.

In fact, Sunderland has four such establishments. Two are Catholic sixth forms, one is an academy and one is a college. They are spread over nine campuses; most are near the city centre though two are in Washington.

Sunderland City Council has been the local education authority since it was set up with its present boundaries in 1974 and has been Labour-controlled throughout that time. Bridget Phillipson has been the local Labour MP since 2010.

Sunderland is one of six council areas in the North East and 55 in England named by the government as Education Investment Areas, as this website reported on March 28. The government says that, among other things, they ‘will be prioritised for new specialist sixth form free schools that will ensure talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to the highest standard of education this country offers.’

Two of the 12 missions for achievement by 2030 contained in the Levelling Up White Paper, published in February, relate to education but neither refers to six forms. One is about primary schools and the other about skills training.

But is the target of a sixth-form school or college teaching A-levels in every constituency a reasonable and appropriate one, bearing in mind the way constituency boundaries can move.

Sunderland City Council said: ‘Following a boundary review, the Houghton and Sunderland South parliamentary constituency was created for the 2010 general election. Young people from across Sunderland have for many years had the opportunity to study for A-levels and other post-16 qualifications at Bede sixth-form college. This college with its hundreds of students is in the Sunderland Central parliamentary constituency and was previously in the Sunderland South constituency. A further review of the city’s parliamentary boundaries is due in 2023. Bede has good transport links and connectivity for students and offers a comprehensive selection of courses.’

Presumably Ms Phillipson knows this, and is aware of what the council calls Bede sixth-form college’s good transport links’. Bede is on the A690 main road between Sunderland and Durham via Houghton-le-Spring. There is a bus stop right outside the campus served by a number of buses. The bus from Houghton-le-Spring to Bede takes around 20 minutes. If Bede campus was about another mile up Durham Road (without actually making the measurement) it would be in Ms Phillipson’s constituency. Perhaps the situation is not so ‘shocking’ after all.

*For transparency: academic staff at the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, Newcastle University, where this author was a student, were engaged with this research.