The Observations of a Self-Confessed Southerner!
The Manchester Skyline
Despite the rhetoric of ‘levelling up’ the north-south’ divide has become more pronounced over recent times. In 2019 the Conservatives won a landslide victory on the basis of ‘getting Brexit done’ and the promise that they would get to grips with the socio-economic deprivation and crumbling infrastructure that is a feature of life in our region. The ‘Red Wall’ crumbled and yet the much anticipated injection of cash has, thus far, fallen well short of expectations. Of course, Covid, the distraction of Partygate and the cost of living crisis have all taken their toll. As Harold Macmillan would say, ‘Events, dear boy’ have got in the way.
Growing up in the South, I had little comprehension of life beyond the Watford Gap. Essex during the 1980s was ‘well reem’. Whilst the industrial heartland of the country was decimated, we drove around in Ford Sierras, flogged double-glazing, took out colossal mortgages and splashed the cash on holidays in Marbella and Benidorm. We were living the dream down on the Essex Riviera. Qualifications counted for little and if you had the gift of the gab and a sharp suit then you could make it in Basildon, Billericay or Brentwood. Indeed, we believed you could make it anywhere. On one level it was all very meritocratic. The years of plenty fell away towards the end of the decade and those who had done well during the boom years started to struggle. The dole queue was no longer a stranger to us. Of course, I do remember the Miners’ Strike but it all seemed a very long way off. Apart from periodic trips to stay with family friends on the Selby Road in Leeds, I never came North. Place names like Burnley and Oldham seemed as exotic as Marrakesh or Bangkok. In the nineties, films like ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘Brassed Off’ did address the very significant challenges that post-industrial communities faced although Coronation Street, Last of the Summer of the Wine and Bread provided a rather comedic caricature of the North that never seemed entirely believable.
Brassed Off! (1996)
It was not that I was indifferent to the experience of those living in the North, but my contextual understanding was poor. My unconscious bias was formed by viewing the world through a London-centric optic. It never dawned on me that the playing field was unfairly tilted in my favour.
Naturally, I would have been upset if I had been aware that the average lifespan of people in Blackpool is a full ten years shorter than the lifespan of those living in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Similarly, the regional achievement gap in terms of GCSEs, A levels and Oxbridge applications would have angered me had I fully appreciated its implications. Surely it is a national scandal that children in the North West and North East perform less well than their Southern counterparts. Of course, the reasons for these differences are complex, generational and attributable to chronic underinvestment. When I moved to Fleetwood, I was astonished to find that Pacer trains were essentially old Leyland Bus frames mounted on train wheels. The only country prepared to buy such stock from us is Iran. It never dawned on me that the eighteen billion pounds spent on London’s Crossrail system came at the expense of rudimentary improvements to travel infrastructure in the North.
Of course, it is not all doom and gloom and the soaring skyline of Manchester and the impressive waterfront of Liverpool are physical manifestations of a new found confidence and sense of purpose. Last week I was fortunate enough to visit the world class training facilities at Manchester City’s Etihad Campus. The regeneration of these two great cities is a tangible expression of hope. House prices across the region continue to rise and a growing number of families are making the move North. Wealth is radiating out from Manchester and the commuter belt moves ever closer to us.
Of course, we all know that the North is a phenomenal place to live. The Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and spectacular beaches are complemented by the generosity, friendliness and warmth of people who place a real value on community and looking after one another. Natural beauty, an outdoors lifestyle and a slightly more relaxed pace of life provide a much better environment within which to bring up children. Northern people tend to be open and welcoming. My wife is Irish and she feels much more at home here than in the South.
In Essex we tend to overrate ourselves. Typically, we will apply for a job and then work out how we are going to fulfil its demands. Northern folk tend to be modest, cautious and a little more humble. Whereas Sixth Formers in the Home Counties will apply to universities with entry requirements that they might struggle to meet, Sixth Formers in the North tend to play it a little too safe. This is reflective of the fact that there is perhaps less cultural capital in terms of knowing how to ‘play the game’. There is less of the sort of inherited privilege which characterises life in the leafy stockbroker belt of the Home Counties. In Essex, privilege tends not to be inherited. Typically, our ancestors arrived into the East End as immigrants in the late nineteenth century and then our families moved out into Essex when they had made good. For many, aspiration was the child of necessity.
The independent sector is focused very much on the South. Northern Schools tend to be viewed as frontier outposts. Indeed, 70% of all boarding schools are south of the M4 and the word ‘national’ in an independent school context rarely extends (geographically at least) beyond the Midlands. Parts of the sector are no stranger to good old-fashioned snobbery. A good number of Southern schools are reluctant to travel North for sports fixtures and there is little knowledge of the independent landscape in these parts. Rossall’s national reputation has soared over recent times but it was not so long ago that fellow Heads at conferences would furrow their brows when I explained where I was from. I do not have a chip on my shoulder but living in the North and working within the independent sector has taught me that levelling up is about much more than money; it is about us Southerners challenging our inherent bias and committing to a future within which life chances are not dependent upon the region of the country within which you happen to be born.
Headmaster of Rossall School