We like to talk in binary, essentialist ways as humans don’t we? Man/Woman, More able/low ability, North/South. It helps us categorise, make sense of and organise our world. It can also encourage us to think in terms of stereotypes such as a northern accent equates with a lack of intelligence or that ‘The North’ (wherever that may be) is a grim and barren land. We were reminded of these stereotypes when we read a new report recently published by the Children’s Commissioner for England called Growing up North.
Amongst the issues that the report highlights is the concern about children as they enter the education system. The report asserts that too many children in this area of the country are at a disadvantage before they have even begun school often because of a lack of early intervention to identify and address learning and development needs. Early intervention, of course, is seen as a key issue in impacting on outcomes for young children. However early intervention initiatives need to be funded and the constant cutting back on funding means that once taken for granted support networks are no longer available. For example The Institute for Fiscal Studies (2017, p. 13) claims that ‘Between 2008–09 and 2015–16, spending per child in pre-school provision and per head… fell in real terms by around 17%’. In economically deprived areas of the north such as the beautiful city of Bradford, which we visited last year for the Men in Early Years conference, the Guardian (2018) claims ‘A third of adults are out of work; 40% of the city’s wards are in the poorest 20% in Britain.. It has…the highest level of child poverty’ these cuts to spending on young children will be felt most keenly.
What we also found interesting about the report was that, when older children were questioned on their aspirations for the future, more children would consider working abroad than in London. It seems noteworthy to us, if you consider we are physically such a tiny country, that children in the North can feel so alienated from their capital city; this alienation was described eloquently by Jessica Andrews in The Independent where she describes her experiences of moving from Sunderland in the North East to London as a student.
The report does draw attention to the fact that there are pockets of the North where both the economy and the children are flourishing just as in pockets of the South, children are impacted by deprivation and poverty. This might suggest then that using a value-laden, emotive term such as ‘Growing up North’ is disingenuous and misleading. It also contributes to discourses which problematise the north and disregard issues for children in the south of the country.
So yes, on the one hand the north/south divide is a reality and certainly does impact on children’s life chances. However, by talking in this binary way we are not describing a true picture of how the wider geographical context impacts on children’s life chances in England. Furthermore, by constantly drawing attention to differences between north and south are we contributing to deficit discourses and unhelpful stereotypes which enhance further these divisions?