A rural childhood is an obstacle to success. Tim Graham/Getty Images

March 19, 2024   4 mins

When people imagine rural poverty, the sandy beaches, thatched cottages, and cream teas of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset rarely spring to mind. But out of sight of holidaymakers and second-homers, life is not so rosy. In washed-out South Western towns such as Minehead, Tiverton and South Molton, many disadvantaged families are struggling to provide a good life for their children.

The state of the schools down here doesn’t help. In 2019, only 40% of disadvantaged pupils in the South West passed their English and Maths GCSE compared with almost 60% in Inner London. That same year, just 17% of disadvantaged students in the South West went on to university, compared with 45% in London. A University of Exeter report found that the South West “has the worst educational outcomes for disadvantaged young people in the country”.

As a local teacher born and bred in Dulverton, I find this assessment devastating. But it’s nothing new: my father’s decision to re-join the military when I was eight was motivated by the abysmal reputation of the local secondary schools in our catchment area — and the generous army school-fees grant. But I believe that the blame lies with the Government, not with our schools and teachers.

While the Conservative government has promised repeatedly to “Level Up” the North East, little attention has been paid to the woes of the South West. Perhaps this is because employment rates here are among the highest in the UK. Thanks to the thriving hospitality, construction and tourism industries, there is a lot of non-skilled work available here — as well as a willing workforce. The South West is a land of hard-working tradespeople: despite its sparse population, it is home to the third highest number of registered self-employed workers in the country.

Yet this shouldn’t distract us from the region’s education crisis. The South West may be home to many employed people, but without educational qualifications they cannot hope to move from non-skilled work to higher-wage jobs. And I know just how valuable academic results are: I worked at bars and on yards for four years after university because I didn’t want to move away from my friends and family on Exmoor. However, because of my good A-level results, when I decided I wanted to earn more, I was able to apply to Teach First and move into a different, significantly more lucrative career. My classmates who left school with worse grades didn’t have this luxury.

It would be easy to blame the schools; to blame teachers for failing in their job. However, I believe the culprit is higher up the food chain. The Government continues to implement an unequal and austere system that will keep the future workforce of the South West poor. Not only has its budget for education in England fallen from 5.6% of national income in 2010-11 to 4.4% in 2022-23, but students in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset receive the lowest amount of funding in the UK by a staggering £460 per pupil. How can we expect students here to achieve good results when so much less is spent on their education?

“The Government continues to implement an unequal and austere system that will keep the future workforce of the South West poor.”

Every week, I run into difficulties where the extra cash might have made all the difference. The other day, Jack*, a pupil in my year 10 class, revealed to the behavioural team that he was struggling to keep up in class following multiple suspensions from school. I looked up his test records and found that Jack — at the age of 15 — had a reading age of seven. How could he possibly be expected to get to grips with the class text, Macbeth, before his GCSEs in a year’s time? The best I could do to help him catch up, given I had 30 other children to teach, was slip him a graphic novel of Macbeth in the next lesson. On cue, a member of the Senior Leadership Team arrived and congratulated me for “doing so much” because the graphic novel ticks the box of being accessible, looking fun and combining visual and verbal information. Of course, we both knew that Jack would not catch up on half a term’s content because of one book — but we just don’t have the funding or staff capacity to make a more effective intervention.

However, funding isn’t the only problem. There is also the lack of vocational training. Postgraduate jobs in the rural South West are hard to come by unless you happen to be either a teacher or an engineer near Hinkley Point. So it’s understandable that not all students here might be motivated by A-levels and university prospects. But the alternative option — an apprenticeship — has become far harder to secure. While there is a high demand for skilled workers in public services and trades around here, the uptake of apprenticeships in England has fallen 31% since 2017.

Again, much of the blame lies with Westminster. In 2014/15, the Government made it compulsory to have an English and Maths GCSE to apply for a Level 2 apprenticeship, which defeated the entire point of the vocational Functional Skills exam. I teach a resit class myself and can feel the frustration of these capable, hard-working young people, who would probably make excellent chefs, plumbers, builders or nurses if only they could pass a GCSE English paper. Do they really need to be able to write an essay on Animal Farm or understand trigonometry in order to read their emails, send an invoice and file a tax return? In a climate where universities are oversubscribed and postgraduate jobs are increasingly scarce, surely we should be doing everything we can to promote alternative avenues of lucrative employment?

It’s as if politicians don’t realise the transformative power of vocational courses. My own partner, for instance, was allowed to complete his plastering apprenticeship long before a GCSE in English and Maths became compulsory. He sat his functional skills paper, got his level 2 in plastering and now earns more than I can ever hope to match, despite my university education.

And while I am pleased to see Rishi Sunak pledge this week to create 20,000 more apprenticeships, I fear that he still won’t address the issue of entry requirements. Already, he is asking fish to climb trees, promising to make Maths compulsory until 18. And his party has so far failed to deliver on its previous promise to introduce more vocational study programmes. This tragedy is borne out at my local school, which lost their farming course — and on-site farm unit — among other vocational courses several years ago due to budget cuts.

These days, nobody expects much from the South West; a childhood spent exploring the moors is merely seen as an obstacle to success. Even universities have started adjusting their offers in line with the educational outcomes of the South West. When I applied for university, I received an unconditional offer from the University of Bristol. Why unconditional? Probably because of my South West postcode.

*This name has been changed to protect the child’s identity.

Rosie Taylor is a secondary-school teacher in Devon.