Head teacher: 'It's not true that nobody from Great Yarmouth goes to uni'
- Credit: © James Bass 2017
A school principal has refuted the idea that "nobody from Great Yarmouth goes to university" after a study found poor, white teenagers from coastal towns were one of the least likely groups to consider higher education.
Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS), said coastal towns and former industrial hubs like Great Yarmouth, Nottingham, Barnsley, and Sheffield were being "left behind".
The study comes as MPs investigate low attainment among white working class pupils.
In Great Yarmouth, 100pc of the constituency's postcodes are classed as "low participation areas" by the OfS, meaning the borough is underrepresented in terms of the number of local people heading off to university.
Nationwide, the OfS found that the rate of progression into higher education for white British students eligible for free school meals is just 16pc (13pc for boys) - compared with rates of 47 to 73pc for Asian students and 32 to 59pc for black students.
Mr Millward said that while the most decisive factor in whether a student progresses to university was down to attainment in school, it also depended on unemployment, ill health and poor housing in their communities.
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Geography is another contributor. He said that poorer white students in London bucked the trend because of high levels of investment in education there.
He added that ethnic minority communities - the majority of which live in London - had also been able to participate in that.
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But, according to Mr Millward, "people in left-behind towns feel the decline of local institutions and civic engagement", and as a result are less likely to believe that education will improve their life chances.
It's not all bad news, however, and according to one sixth form head teacher, is the opposite of her experience.
Catherine Richards, principal at East Norfolk (EN) Sixth Form in Gorleston, said: "Every time we see statistics about deprivation and attainment, Great Yarmouth pops up.
"But I really don't recognise the picture the OfS is painting. At EN, half of our students go to university, which is the same as the national average.
"Not only that, but we have examples of white, working class boys from Great Yarmouth who are on free school meals heading off to Oxford and Cambridge.
"Last year alone, 70 of our students went off to study at UEA - a fantastic achievement.
"Over the years, we've been building up an extensive list of alumni to draw on from universities all over the world", she continued.
"They help our current students navigate the process - a lot of whom are the first generation to consider higher education.
"A big part of improving attainment, alongside great teaching, is simply demystifying university as a concept. Sometimes, that's the only thing holding people back."
In Great Yarmouth, the council is not blind to these issues and has been actively working to turn the borough's fortunes around.
Leader Carl Smith said: "With the excellent support of local schools and colleges, many young people from our borough do continue their study to higher education.
"However we absolutely recognise that deprivation in some areas does bring challenges to people accessing those opportunities and reaching their full potential.
"Not everyone who has the aspiration to go onto university can afford to live away from home and support themselves while studying.
"But we are actively working with East Coast College and Norfolk County Council to develop aspirations and establish a Learning Centre and University Campus in the heart of Great Yarmouth town centre."
Labour councillor Mike Smith-Clare said another issue was Great Yarmouth families relying on seasonal work for income - meaning many students were limited to September start-date courses.
On their part, East Coast College principal Stuart Rimmer said the college was working hard to "remove the barriers to participation" which many people in the region face.
"Through our college and sixth form, we see a large amount of talented students go off to university when they finish their studies with us at 18, and through our partnership with the University of Suffolk we can offer degree courses for students on their doorstep", he said.