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Understanding Educational Progression at the Local Level:

Portsmouth, The Northern City on the South Coast

by Jo Blanden, Héctor Espinoza, Sandra McNally and Guglielmo Ventura

In Boris Johnson’s first prime ministerial speech he promised to “level up across Britain with higher wages, and a higher living wage, and higher productivity - because it is time we unleashed the productive power not just of London and the South East but of every corner of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. This mantra has been repeated many times since and was emphasised in the 2020 Spending Review; including through provision for a £4bn Levelling Up Fund for England (HM Treasury, 2020).

Evidence suggests that the UK’s levels of regional inequality are particularly high relative to other countries (Davenport and Zarenko, 2020). This is not a simple story of North v South or London and the South East v the rest of the country, but rather there is substantial inequality between local areas within each broad region. A recent paper by Agrawal and Phillips (2020) highlights the poor performance of some rural and coastal areas alongside the former industrial areas of the North and Midlands. Indeed, Agrawal and Phillips find that of all the 12 regions of the UK the prosperous South East has the highest degree of inequality among its constituent Local Authorities.

Understanding regional inequalities is likely to be key to understanding the UK’s overall macroeconomic performance. Our project for Rebuilding Macroeconomics looks at local educational progression, a critical part of local economic development as well as wider levels well-being and social cohesion. We look in detail at the educational progression of a recent cohort of young people within a small, but density populated, geographic area in the south coast of England, specifically the Portsmouth conurbation.

This narrow focus allows us to identify the key features of an area that has recently been classified as being ‘left behind’ (the city of Portsmouth and its neighbour Gosport are in the top quintile of Davenport and Zaranko’s ‘left behind’ index) and provide guidance for local policy and future wider investigation. The area, which has also been dubbed ‘The Northern city on the South Coast’ due to its deindustrialization connected to the shrinkage of the Royal Navy, includes the Portsmouth unitary authority and the local authority districts of Havant, Gosport and Fareham.

Our focus on education and skills is in line with many recent analyses on how to improve productivity in Britain (e.g. LSE Growth Commission, 2017). Gibbons, Pelkonen and Overman (2013) find that 90% of the differences in area-level wages can be explained by differences in the dispersion of high skilled workers. Any mission to truly ‘level up’ requires a focus on improving skills, and indeed this is at least as important as investment in infrastructure and R&D.

We make use of administrative data to track students throughout their school education and as they progress through further and higher education. Our aim is to extend the data and methods used here to develop useful tools of analysis for local areas, giving context for efforts to improve local opportunities. Our analysis shows that educational inequalities within the Portsmouth conurbation are often at least as striking than the inequalities between the conurbation and the rest of England: Fareham, for example, does much better than the other areas in terms of GCSE performance.

Taken together, the conurbation does relatively poorly at sending students to tertiary education. This is despite the fact that the conurbation does about the same as the rest of England in enabling students to achieve a good upper secondary education (i.e. A level or equivalent qualifications) after taking account of their performance up to age 16 and demographics. To some extent, there may be scope to facilitate more university participation by students in these areas. However, on its own, this is unlikely to be a sufficient response.

The conurbation seems to suffer from the absence of a well-developed national infrastructure for post-18 education outside of university degrees. As explained in the Augar Review (2019), the next step after Level 3 (i.e. a good upper secondary qualification), is effectively a Level 6 (full degree), or nothing; ‘there is a near-total barrier to progress for people who have achieved a basic level of education at age 18, but who do not progress to university or an apprenticeship’. Although steps are being taken to try to remove the gap in the educational market (for example through the ‘lifetime skills guarantee’), there is a long road ahead to build a more broadly-based tertiary system – and it will require considerable and sustained investment.


Agrawal, S., and D. Phillips. (2020). Catching up or falling behind? Geographical inequalities in the UK and how they have changed in recent years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies. London.

Augar Review (2019). Independent panel report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding. HMSO.

Davenport, A., and B. Zarenko. (2020). Levelling Up: Where and How? Chapter 7. IFS Green Budget 2020. Institute for Fiscal Studies. London.

Gibbons, S., H. Overman and P. Pelkonen. (2013). Area Disparities in Britain: Understanding the Contribution of People vs. Place Through Variance Decompositions, Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics 76(5): 1-19.

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