What Downton Abbey still tells us about social mobility in the South of England today


The final episode of the latest series of Downton Abbey, the English TV period drama, was aired last Sunday evening. Don’t worry, if you haven’t seen it yet as I won’t spoil the story. Of course there’ll be a Christmas Special still to come …

Social mobility?

Social mobility?

I’ve mentioned the series in a post  earlier this year, when the English Schools Minister, Michael Gove, was having a go at the Labour Opposition whom he labelled the ‘Downton Abbey Party’. This was  because he accused them of not giving working class children the same academic chances as those from the other classes. I found his approach trivialised the issues and my more serious point then was about the need for targeted measures to improve social mobility, given the wide disparities in the English education system.

This point was re-emphasised at the conference I attended and blogged about last week on raising the attainment of all school children in England. It is clear that there are parts of the country where increased social mobility will never happen as an outcome unless educational improvement operates in a more strategic way.

This is why I have been examining possible models of what I call Localised Strategic Education Partnerships (LSEPs). Such LSEPs could be connected to the 39 new Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) which now define ‘functional economic areas’ in England – London is one very large ‘global’ LEP which links education and skills across its separate Boroughs, each acting as Local Authorities (LAs). Extending the analogy, LSEPs would be ‘functional educational areas’ operating at a level below a LEP and above LAs.

However my biggest concern in the South of England isn’t London, which has done remarkably well over the last decades for a range of reasons, not least of which is considerable state education funding and plenty of employment options for young people.

As the conference made clear last week we now need to target the non-metropolitan areas of the South – so large rural LAs such as Norfolk, Suffolk, Oxfordshire, the Isle of Wight, Devon and Cornwall, where children in certain state schools have arguably been neglected through a national focus on conurbations.

I’ve not even mentioned extensive parts of both rural and coastal central and northern England …

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