The ‘postcode penalty’ – What the Youth Opportunity Index tells us about inequality of opportunity

Back in 1997 I was campaigning for a Yes vote in the referendum to establish the National Assembly for Wales, knocking doors and encouraging people to vote in communities across the south Wales coalfield. Two years later I was lucky enough to be starting my career as a political researcher in that very institution.

My own support for devolution was motivated by the belief that it would improve opportunities for young people and help address the inequalities that were the legacy of our industrial and economic decline.

Fast forward two-decades and have things really improved? Undoubtedly there has been progress across a range of measures, including improving school results and expanding apprenticeship opportunities.

However, when it comes to the big challenge of addressing historic, and deeply entrenched inequalities, the analysis of our first ever Wales Youth Opportunity Index shows that there is still so much more to do.

For the first time, our Youth Opportunity Index brings together the key outcomes both in terms of education and employment for young people in Wales. It allows us to highlight the opportunities available to our young people at a local level. And it shows some stark inequalities.For example, residents in Monmouthshire have double the enrolment rate for Higher Education courses than those in neighbouring Blaenau Gwent, while the apprenticeship participation rate for 16-24 year olds is three times higher in Neath Port Talbot than in Cardiff or Ceredigion.

The index shows that the four lowest ranking local authorities are in the South East Wales Valleys (Torfaen, Merthyr Tydfil, Blaenau Gwent and Caerphilly), showing that opportunities today – both in education and in employment for young people – remain unevenly distributed and are entrenching existing inequalities. It reveals that where you live has an unacceptably high bearing on level of attainment and opportunities for young people, with those growing up in our poorest communities just not getting a fair chance.

In short, too often the greater the need for an area to have good schools, high quality vocational provision, and access to opportunities in employment – the less likely it is to happen. This is a perverse outcome well understood by policymakers in the NHS, but we don’t talk about it anywhere near as much as we should do relating to education. And this has got to change.

Our analysis shows too that there is a need for urgent and radical action to reflect the scale of the challenge. There are already some great examples of innovative and successful interventions, not least in our colleges and from third sector organisations such as Groundwork Wales.

Our Youth Opportunity Index clearly shows that in the most economically deprived areas in Wales, young people are more likely to have fewer qualifications, they are more likely to lack basic skills and they have poorer access to higher level study and decent employment opportunities. This isn’t really a postcode lottery, because it isn’t a matter of chance. The pattern is clear, sustained and predictable – it would be fairer to describe it as a postcode penalty.

People get incredibly exercised when debating the impact of private schools on state funded education – and there has been front-page coverage of big rows about privilege and access in recent weeks. Important though this is, when it comes to making Wales a fair and successful country, that debate – about the small number of people who get a golden ticket to the top universities – is in part a distraction from the importance of tackling deeply ingrained geographical inequalities that hold entire communities back. This, more important debate, too rarely gets a look-in. Bluntly, poor areas will stay poor unless we can improve the levels of education and skills in those communities.

Wales can be rightly proud of many of the things we have achieved in the first twenty years of devolution. There has been a significant reduction in NEETS, and in the number of people leaving school with no qualifications. There are policies that don’t exist elsewhere that help pupils in deprived communities. And yet, long-lasting, inter-generational inequalities remain stubborn and real. As parties grapple with the urgency of Brexit, the importance of this challenge cannot be ignored. By the 2021 elections, we should expect their new manifestos to show us their ideas on how to fix this.

We need earlier identification and interventions with young people at risk of not achieving their potential. We need better vocational routes for those young people who choose not to follow the academic path. And we need Working Wales and Job Support Wales to target areas of greatest need. This is how we will tackle the inequalities that have been passed down through successive generations. It can’t be right that in Wales, after two decades of devolution, where you are born still dictates what sort of education you can expect. Time to focus our efforts to tackling the postcode penalty.

Explore the Youth Opportunity Index here.