Children from the lowest income backgrounds in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset perform worse than their peers elsewhere

Poorer children in the South West have the worst educational outcomes in the country – from their early years to A-level results – a new report warns.

The research shows children from the lowest income backgrounds in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset perform worse than their peers elsewhere. More 5-year-olds lack school readiness, while 11 year-olds and 19-year olds are less likely to meet basic educational milestones at the end of primary school or 16-18 education.

The region now has the lowest proportion of disadvantaged students gaining Level 3 qualifications including A-levels, T-levels and equivalent qualifications.

Pupils across the peninsula meanwhile are missing lessons at a higher rate than pupils anywhere else in the country.

This is the second annual report of the South-West Social Mobility Commission, which was set up to tackle the poor education and early career outcomes faced by children and young people from under-resourced backgrounds across the peninsula. The Commission, supported by the University of Exeter, brings together a group of civic leaders and a dedicated strategy unit to drive action across the region to address these issues.

The report warns low social mobility in the South-West needs to be urgently addressed, but this will be hindered by sharp increases in the cost of living, particularly surrounding housing costs. It warns Torbay stands out as an area of particular concern, with children performing poorly from their early years and throughout primary and secondary level. Absence rates for those eligible for free school meals were particularly high in secondary schools in the local authority at 18.1 per cent.

A total of 22 out of 23 House of Commons constituencies were below the England average when it comes to disadvantaged five-year-olds meeting expected levels of development. Only Camborne and Redruth, where the figure was 56.5 per cent of children, outperformed the England average.

St Ives had the lowest percentage of children eligible for free school meals meeting the expected level of development – 37.6% per cent. Just 11 out of 23 constituencies in the South West were above the national average when the results for all pupils were considered.  

Sir Michael Barber, Chair of the South-West Social Mobility Commission, said: “We will only succeed in changing these stubborn facts by mobilising the entire region. Its people and especially its leaders need to believe in the possibility of transformation. The economy of the South West is changing, now people and communities need to change too so they can seize the opportunities that will surely result.

“As a Commission we believe the human potential of the South-West region is great. We need to accelerate change and through vibrant and continuous advocacy, shift the culture.”

The analysis shows that in Autumn Term 2023 the South West had the highest absence rate in the country for students eligible for free school meals, at 12 per cent, as well as the highest absence rate for those not eligible, at 5.8 per cent. This compares to national averages of 10.4 per cent and 5.4 per cent respectively.

The latest education data shows in comparison to other English regions, the South-West has:

  • The lowest proportion of 5-year-olds in the country eligible for free school meals reaching the expected levels of development across Early Years Foundation Stage goals – 46 per cent compared with 49.7 per cent of children nationally
  • The lowest proportion of disadvantaged 11-year-olds reaching expected levels in reading, writing and maths – 38 per cent compared with 44 per cent nationally
  • A lower proportion of disadvantaged pupils achieving a grade 4 or above in English and maths GCSE than the England average – 40.3 per cent compared with 43.7 per cent nationally, making it the third-lowest performing region of nine English regions
  • The joint-lowest proportion of disadvantaged young people attaining level 2 qualifications in English and maths by age 19 – 52 per cent compared with 57 per cent nationally
  • The sharpest year-on-year decrease in the proportion of disadvantaged young people obtaining a level 3 qualification by age 19, meaning the region now has the lowest proportion achieving this qualification – 34 per cent compared with 42 per cent nationally
  • The lowest proportion of disadvantaged young people going on to higher level (level 4+) qualifications – 51.2 per cent compared with 68.3 per cent nationally

Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, said: “These are truly shocking figures, which must act as a wake-up call for politicians who often overlook the region’s stark social mobility challenges.  The systemically poor outcomes are both unfair for those children and young people born by happenstance into less well-off families, and a serious challenge to the region’s future stability and prosperity. The region’s social mobility issues need to be addressed, urgently.

“Without concerted efforts by employers, education providers and other civic leaders to address the large and systemic barriers that currently exist in the region, accessing these opportunities remain difficult if not impossible. We need to level the playing-field at every opportunity, so that all young people have the knowledge, exposure, resources, guidance and connections to discover, access and then thrive within this new landscape.”

The report also highlights several examples of success in the region showing it is perfectly possible to improve opportunities. The Cornwall Education Learning Trust for example boast some of the most impressive progress data for disadvantaged pupils across the South West. CELT is looking to offer higher education qualifications to their own support staff to become early years practitioners within their school settings – an example of improving life outcomes for adults as well as children. 

A pioneering scheme, run as part of the Commission, training undergraduates to tutor pupils reached around 350 pupils this year. Participating pupils attended a ‘graduation ceremony’ at the University of Exeter where they received certificates from Sir Ben Bradshaw.

Young Devon is supporting the upskilling of young people who might otherwise be experiencing homelessness by providing them with accommodation and helping them to access and progress into training and employment.