Column: All Things Equal - Civilised society’ lost generations

Sheridan Smith

Sheridan Smith

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Sheffield is an incredibly diverse city that facilitates an international standard of education rivalling most universities in the world. It’s a place where young people come to realise their aspirations, potentially stay and prosper.

More importantly, Sheffield is a city that has the potential to protect itself from the brain drain to the South that so many Northern towns and cities struggle from resisting, losing their best talent.

This inadvertently impacts on the Northern economy so badly that many local areas have to mainly rely on low skill industries.

This is one of the fundamental reasons why a devolution deal for the North should not have been delayed, and it is a real shame that parts of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire did not have the foresight, or the leadership to understand the implications of the blockages – instead they resorted to insignificant platitudes.

Education and aspiration realisation, for me is the cornerstone of any sustainable and thriving economy, I still recall that famous “education, education, education” speech made by Tony Blair, the passion it invoked, and the drive that David Blunkett put behind it in attempt to drive up social mobility and tackle poverty in Sheffield and nationally.

Since then, our education system as a whole has been through a Tory revolution and only time will tell of the real impact of free schools, abolishing school grants, and now there is also a real threat to research subsidies for universities from the EU when Brexit fully takes grip.

The impact that will have on our people, our progression, and our collective futures remains to be seen.

Recently, I read a report from UCAS that the gulf between the numbers of rich and poor children winning university places has reached record levels. For me, this is an incredibly sad indictment of exactly where we are now as a country, who aspiration works for, and who it doesn’t.

Evidence suggests that those students, who receive free school meals (the long term indicator of poverty) from white working class families, are less than half as likely to enter higher education as those who do not get the dinners. In a nutshell it shows the biggest aspiration gap in recent years.

Since the un-elected Prime Minister has come into power, and gave her commitment on social mobility, and the country to work for everyone, I wonder what weight, if any, she is going to put behind these UCAS figures.

More importantly I want to know what action she will dictate from Whitehall so that these young people are not left behind.

I am someone who benefited from a free education, which took me and many of friends and current colleagues out of poverty, and provide us all with opportunity and positions of relative

respectability.

So I wonder what actions the local Council can take in a period of austerity to ensure that these young people, particularly the white working class and males, are not left behind.

I just wonder if there is any mileage in the Local Authority constructing a league table of the 10/20% poorest areas, so that we are all able to measure the trajectory of children from these areas at primary school, performance at GCSE level and as a key determinant of whether these young people will access higher education or not – and if not, we should demand to know why.

Wouldn’t it be great that if our local Universities from those astronomical £9,000 fees per student, per year, were able to reinvest 10 or 5% from those fees in a programme specifically for

those young people, so that collectively as a city we can ensure these young people thrive too. I once read it is better to teach someone to fish rather than feed the whole village.

To put this into context, as I watched the Shannon Matthews BBC drama (in which regional actress Sheridan Smith, pictured, plays search leader Julie Bushby), I just could not stop wondering, what the future holds for many of the young people on that estate, where are the role models and mentors?

I know I shouldn’t, but I could not help feeling for Karen (not that I condone her abusive behaviour), a woman who seemed to have had seven children to different men – is this vulnerability or is it choice.

The question I ask is, whether Karen is a construct of her own circumstances, or are we to blame as a society – and more importantly what will happen of Shannon.

Wouldn’t it be great if, in ten years’ time , we found Shannon as a local MP, or in a position of relative respectability, or we got to know she had graduated from one of our universities.

The point is, there are young people all around us that need our support and, unless we as a collective understand that responsibility, not only will that gulf between the rich and poor

going to university widen, we will simply lose entire generations to a class divide Is there anything more sad than that in what we

claim is “a civilised society?