1. Economics
June 10, 2016updated 27 Mar 2023 3:42pm

In some UK cities, residents are eight times more likely to have no qualifications than in others

By Jonn Elledge

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

So, here are some mildly terrifying stats for you. In some British cities, fewer than 5 per cent of the adult population have no qualifications. In the most qualified – or rather, least unqualified – city, that figure is under two per cent.

In some cities, though, it’s well over 15 per cent. In the very worst, it’s pushing 17.

In other words, working-age residents of one British city are more than eight times as likely as those of another to be without qualifications.

Guess which end of the country each of those cities are. Go on, you’ll never guess.

Click to expand and weep.

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Yep. The number of working age adults living in Exeter who have no qualifications is just 1.9 per cent. In Stoke-on-Trent, that number is 16.9.

And, in a shocking twist, those English cities with the fewest qualification-free adults are overwhelmingly in the south. Those with the most are overwhelmingly in the north and the midlands. Scotland, as ever, is split down the middle, with Edinbugh and Aberdeen rolling in qualifications, while Dundee and Glasgow languish at the other end of the league table.

Whether this is a cause or effect of the economic chasm down the middle of this country is not something you can glean from these figures. It seems probable that it’s both: depressed post-industrial cities have less money, which means weaker schools, which means less qualified workforces, which means they stay depressed. It’s a vicious circle.

At any rate, this divide frequently has a knock on effect on education policy. In 2012, reports appeared that then education secretary Michael Gove was considering scrapping GCSEs, and resurrecting the old divide into “O-levels” for bright kids, and “CSEs” for less bright ones.

Newsnight policy editor Chris Cook, at that time the Financial Times‘ education correspondent, noted that there was a pretty big political downside to this plan:

According to the report, under this new scheme some children would get the new O-level, and the bottom 25 per cent would take “CSEs”. This strikes me as a high-risk policy…

There will be a geographical effect… The CSE will be a northern qualification… Take a look at the belt from Liverpool to Hull – the CSE towns of tomorrow.

In other words, in some parallel universe where Gove got his way, the children of the Northern Powerhouse would all be doing worse qualifications than those in the south.

In this universe, though, someone in the Department for Education seems to have noticed that reforming qualifications to disadvantage England’s urban north yet further was probably A Bad Idea, and the plan was quietly dropped.

To highlight the regional disparity, here’s our own interactive map of the figures we used in the chart above. Lighter shades of yellow and white mean fewer people without qualifications; darker shades of green mean more. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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