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Young lives: is now a good time to be young?
Young lives: is now a good time to be young?

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1 Regional difference and divergence

Early lives are lived within a complex interplay of education, wealth, health, family circumstances and experiences. But they are also affected by where we live and the resources available where we grew up (for example, good transport links or a swimming pool or a safe neighbourhood). While many of us might easily and readily identify how where we were born has influenced our lives, perhaps a more difficult question to answer is whether where you are born should matter. Keep this in mind as you do the first activity.

Activity 1 Does where you are born (still) affect your chances in life?

Timing: Allow about 1 hour

Human geography can play a significant role in understanding young lives. Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has examined the North–South divide in England. (Although an English example is used here, data illustrating geographical divergence from another part of the UK could equally have been used.)

Read the following materials from Growing Up North:

Now answer the following questions:

  • In what ways does it still matter where children are born?
  • Why might these particular recommendations reduce the North–South divide?

Write your answers in the box below.

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Anne Longfield, as Children’s Commissioner for England, decided to focus some of her attention and resources on the north–south divide in England because of the clear geographical differences in things such as wages, jobs, GCSE achievement and engagement with higher education, which all play an important part in young lives.

Geographical differences are linked to divergence in equality of opportunity and while this is by no means a recent phenomenon, it is one important piece of the bigger picture. Longfield sees geographical differences like this as unfair and something that should not be accepted as inevitable. She describes the North–South divide as one component playing a part within a complex set of interactions, or dynamic, between education, wealth, health, labour markets, family aspirations and transport links that negatively affects many children’s and young people’s lives.

In the report’s recommendations, you can see a variety of ideas for addressing the damaging effects of regional inequalities: putting children at the heart of regeneration and urging additional investment to support local councils are probably foreseeable recommendations, but there are others here too. Changes need to be made for children and young people of different ages; strengthen early intervention services, increase early identification of special needs, provide greater leadership from key schools (the Northern School programme recommendation). There is also a recommendation to put in plans to prevent young people from dropping out of education early. The report recommends a closer relationship between schools and local employers. It also recommends that arts, culture and sports are provided, in the first instance, to children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Addressing geographically based opportunities and services for children and young people like this has real potential to address disadvantage.

It would seem that where you are born today remains a significant determinant of life choices and chances. For example, by the age of 5, less than half (49%) of children born into the poorest families in the north of England achieve a ‘good level of development’, which compares with 59% of children living in poverty in London (Clifton et al., 2016). Also, just a third of those children who receive free school meals in the north go on to achieve the standard of five GCSEs at grades A*–C, including English and Maths (Clifton et al., 2016). And this situation is set to get worse. Demand for skilled workers in the north of England is forecast to increase, with three-quarters of the 2.4 million new jobs expected to be available in 2022 requiring A levels or equivalent in training (Clifton et al., 2016).

Of course, the picture is more complex than that. So, for example, while London still has the highest levels of child poverty in the country (Child Poverty Action Group, 2018), it has experienced a remarkable, rapid increase in newborn life expectancy (Office for National Statistics, 2017). This could be as a result of the selective migration of more healthy individuals from more deprived areas of the UK to London (and the south-east) (Office for National Statistics, 2017).

However, life expectancy is now actually falling in some parts of the UK (Office for National Statistics, 2017) and being born in what the Social Mobility Commission has called one of the UK’s ‘cold spots’ (Social Mobility Commission, 2017) means low wages and fewer routes into good jobs, leaving people trapped in poverty. You will look at social mobility later.