Geography is in vogue
Last week I attended a conference organised by the Social Mobility Commission on narrowing the social mobility divide. It was about geography which is very convenient because on 24 April I’m giving a talk on the same theme (and you are cordially invited). Geography is in vogue. Brexit split us into two tribes and now serious thought is being given to geographical disparities – in growth, in education, and in opportunity. It’s become an obsession for me. I wrote before on how I have been collecting maps of the country that they tend to show a similar thing – a country divided into the prosperous London and South East with struggling rural and coastal regions and ex-industrial centres.
The two tyrannies
A few days after the referendum Andy Haldane – Chief economist at the Bank of England – gave the speech ‘whose recovery’ in which he posed the question – when talking to people around the country why does the story on the ground often differ from the rosy picture painted by the headline stats? The answer of course is that the recovery has been uneven and the headline figures are subject to the tyranny of averages. The figure below shows that since the crash it is pretty much just London and the South East that have recovered their GDP per head.
Hindsight suggests that the tyranny of averages gave way to the tyranny of the majority. It was not the economy stupid (at least in headline terms), but inequality stupid.
Redistribution or inclusive growth?
Thankfully Brexit has been the catalyst for a flurry work on the issue (that it takes a Brexit or a Trump for policy makers to pay attention to regional disparities is a crying shame!). In addition to last week’s conference, The RSA recently concluded its commission on inclusive growth and the think tank IPPR has just launched a commission on economic justice. The first question to which I still don’t have an answer is, should we let the growth continue unevenly and redistribute the rewards, or encourage the redistribution of the growth in the first place? And to what extent are either of these things feasible?
What about young people?
Since the inception of The Careers & Enterprise Company regional disparities in the career provision in schools has been at the forefront and The Company developed the cold spots model (gif below) to help identify those areas most in need. The model has been used to direct funding so at a very modest level it is a model of redistribution. The natural endowment of one region (for example the abundance of employers in London) is the disadvantage of another region and so the funding is used to target this deficiency. The model doesn’t say that one area is performing worse than another, only that it needs more help.
The model targets funds at school age young people, but what about after they have left? Geography still presents obstacles.
Should I stay or should I go?
This leads me to my second unanswered question. At the Social Mobility Commission’s conference former Universities Minister David Willets asked ‘should young people get on their bikes?’. Is the best thing for social mobility, mobility mobility! As a boy from Somerset making it in the big smoke I have some experience of this. Is London’s gain Somerset’s loss? Perhaps. From my point of view, my job in education policy doesn’t exist there, but maybe it should! There was after all a campaign to move parliament to Bristol. If the BBC can move its operations to Salford then this doesn’t seem so farfetched. Projects like the above seek to spread out the growth from London – a capital about which has been said “completely dominates the political, cultural and economic life of the UK to an extent rarely seen elsewhere”.
This is less useful for the young person making their way in the labour market. For the time being the distribution of opportunity is uneven and moving to the opportunity is more viable than waiting for the opportunity to move to them. A charge leveled at schools with 6th forms is that it is financially beneficial to advise students to stay on even if this is not in the interest of the young person. Could the same be said for people working towards local economic growth? Is there a conflict between what’s best for the young person and what’s best for the local economy? After all the south has been accused of being a brain drain on the north.
One last plug
We might assume that a young person can travel to work opportunities but where they go to school is something for which they have very little choice. I’ve written before on the strong link between deprivation and destiny. There is a strong appeal to social justice in providing all young people with opportunities for them to prepare for their futures. My talk will consider the contribution that we are making to this at The Careers & Enterprise Company.
But what’s more, Bart Shaw from the education “think and action tank” LKMco will be giving a talk – Held back or helped on? How educational outcomes impact on life chances for different social groups. I recently read two reports cover to cover from the Social Mobility Commission and reached out to them. They put me in touch with Bart the lead author and we are delighted that he is going to give his talk.
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