Why are life chances for the poorest children in Norfolk so bad?

Baroness Shephard of Northwold - deputy chairman of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission

Baroness Shephard of Northwold - deputy chairman of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA - Credit: PA

The life prospects of the poorest children in parts of Norfolk, Suffolk and the Fens are among the worst in the country, new research has shown.

Norwich, Waveney and Fenland are among the top 10 social mobility 'coldspots' identified in a new index drawn up by a government-appointed commission which has been set up to address the gap between poorer children and their better-off classmates.

The survey of life chances had been conducted across the 324 local authorities in England.

The 'geography of disadvantage' shows that while London's historic poor social mobility record has been shaken off, the children of low income parents in rural, coastal and more wealthy areas have been left behind, with the wealthiest areas proving to be the worst at creating opportunities for the disadvantaged.

The index looked at how well the poorest children did at school, university and in the job and housing market.

Baroness Shephard, a former Norfolk MP who is now deputy chairman of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission which penned the report, said education was the key driver of social mobility.

She highlighted the difficulty many low achieving areas had in recruiting good headteachers and said there needed to be continued emphasis in persuading good people to come to the area when others retired.

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'Bright young people prefer to be in London, but if they aren't in London they want to somewhere else where there are bright lights.

'In the past, 40 or 50 years ago, people would have been enormously attracted to a coastal or rural area, that is no longer the case.'

She also highlighted the difficulties many young people had in getting to work experience.

'You can have job creating schemes, mentoring schemes and work experience schemes, but if young people can't get to them because there isn't a bus, they are going to miss out.

'This need to be borne in mind by employers who offer these opportunities – accountancy firms, legal firms, the health service – these opportunities must be made available even if children are in difficult to access parts of the country.'

But she said there were reasons to be optimistic. 'There are a lot of policies now in place to help improve the life chances of these children. There are good examples to draw on from those responsible – if they wish they share expertise with other areas.

She added that measures already in place should not be disregarded because they were yet to bear fruit.

'But the fact is that we can't afford, both for the individuals concerned, or for the prosperity of our regions and our nation to ignore the skills that these children also have.'

George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council, said Norfolk's place in the index was no surprise as it had been 'plainly obvious' that it did not get the level of funding that other counties did to tackle the complex issue for many years.

But he said the county council had been working for some time to tackle the issue, including by making sure children and young people had the skills to access higher education and employment opportunities and directly funding or contributing to economic projects to create jobs in well-paid careers.

'All of this investment takes time to bear fruit though – whether that be for a young person to come through an improved education system, or for an economic project to get off the ground and start employing people,' he added.

The commission's chairman, Alan Milburn, said the report was a wake-up call for educators and employers, as well as policy-makers, both local and national.

'If social mobility is to take off, much more will need to be done if there is to be a level playing field of opportunity in our country. The gulf between the ambition of a One Nation Britain and today's reality of a divided Britain is far too wide.'

The commission, which started operating in 2013, was set up to monitor the government's progress in improving social mobility and reducing child poverty in the United Kingdom.