A long journey from Blackpool…

I wrote this piece on a stationary Virgin train in Preston train station trying to return home ‘down South’ after a day on business visiting the Government’s social mobility Opportunity Area team and partners in Blackpool. Having spent two hours stranded in Preston, it promised to be a long journey home. But it made me consider other long journeys, figuratively speaking, that started in Blackpool!

My maternal great-grandparents, immigrants from Ireland, came to the UK and ended up running a guest house on the glorious Blackpool coastline (to be precise, Cleveleys). My grandmother and her twin sister were considered bathing beauties of Blackpool’s golden mile of beach! My grandmother went on to marry my grandfather (well, obviously!) who was the son of working-class parents in Salford. My grandfather was bright — really bright! — and secured himself a full scholarship to Manchester Grammar School — but he had to leave school when he was 16 due to his father’s health issues which meant he had to go to work to support the family. My grandfather went on to become quite a successful businessman but he always prized education beyond all else as the route to success. He made sure that his eldest child — my mother — was the first in her family to go to university. And dutifully buying my brother and I the full set of beautiful red leather-bound Encyclopaedia Britannica (for younger readers, how we did our homework research pre-Google!), one at a time every Christmas and birthday. All of which must have had some impact, as my brother and I both went on to university and have done okay career-wise. And last weekend, I took my own daughter to start at university.

My great-Aunt, my grandmother’s twin, fell in love with a local man called Mr Goldberg and converted to Judaism so that they could marry. My great-Aunt’s descendants similarly prized the opportunity that education provided and thrived, with two of their children moving to America to make new lives there. They also cherished their Jewish faith, with one of the grandchildren becoming a devoted religious scholar and Rabbi in the New York area. Despite the Anglican Christian tradition of my line of the family, the different faith traditions of the two lines was never an issue.

So, from the intrepid Cowans from County Clare who chose to leave their, presumably, beloved Ireland to make a new home by the sea in Lancashire, in just a few generations their family line is one in which taking school seriously, going to university and progressing to professional careers is just seen as the norm. And in which social mixing across faith traditions, across different continents, and across different ethnicities is boringly unremarkable.

Contrast that with the momentous social mobility challenges facing young people growing up in Blackpool today, as set out in the Blackpool social mobility Opportunity Area plan published today. Blackpool is the most deprived local authority in England. Some 7,700 Blackpool children live in low income families. Blackpool has a greater proportion of children in need than any other local authority in England. Young people in Blackpool are much more likely than their peers to suffer from poor health and be affected by issues such as teenage pregnancy and alcohol and substance abuse. In 2016, GCSE results in Blackpools schools were among the lowest in England. Which all goes to explain why Blackpool comes in at number 316 out of the 324 areas in the Social Mobility Commission’s Social Mobility Index, which measures the likelihood that a child from a disadvantaged background will do well at school and get a good job.

It is hard for me not to ask whether my grandparents would ever have had the chance to create the life for themselves and their children if they were growing up in Blackpool today. Thankfully, I am an eternal optimist! That the Department of Education has recognised the huge challenges faced by Blackpool and so many other similar towns and districts across the country through its social mobility Opportunity Area agenda tells me that people in seats of power do care about this huge injustice. And, perhaps more importantly, that change is possible.

A cliche, I know, but real change on this agenda will only come about by real collaboration. That is why I am honoured to play a small part in Blackpool, and all of the other 11 social mobility Opportunity Areas, both as the Senior Mentoring Adviser for The Careers & Enterprise Company and advising the National Citizen Service on its localities and integration approaches. Both The Careers & Enterprise Company and National Citizen Service are strategic partners for the Opportunity Area and I know both organisations care passionately about their commitment to these communities and in working closely together to have most impact, as set out powerfully in the Opportunity Area plans published today.

Mentoring is critical to social mobility as it is only by sustained and meaningful engagement with relatable adult role models that the young people in the Opportunity Areas — and in so many other areas — will be able to see that they can overcome the barriers they face to success. Because their mentors have so very often done just that! The funding from The Careers & Enterprise Company’s Mentoring Fund will ensure that an additional 25,000 pre-GCSE teenagers up-and-down the country can have access to this support. The National Citizen Service has a hugely important role in helping young people to navigate the difficult tradition to adulthood, confident and skilled in their ability to play an active role in their gloriously diverse communities as flourishing citizens with a powerful sense of belonging and optimism for their future.

The social mixing agenda of the NCS is particularly crucial as we must ensure that young people understand that our success as a country — and, indeed, for all of us as individuals — depends on each of us feeling valued in society and feeling that we can add value to society. Equally, mentoring programmes that bring together adults and young people from different backgrounds can be hugely powerful. The evidence, such as the recent Department for Education research on schools in Oldham (another Opportunity Area) by the brilliant Professor Miles Hewstone and colleagues shows powerfully how bringing young people from different backgrounds makes such an important difference to the cohesive nature of communities. It is too easy, especially when times are tough, to blame ‘the other’ for the challenges we might face so never has the need to bring young people together from diverse backgrounds been more important.

Change will take time but change is possible. So in years to come, I know that the young people growing up in Blackpool today will, like my Cowan ancestors, create future generation with a much greater chance of living fulfilled and fulfilling lives.

First published 9 October 2017 – https://medium.com/@jonathanfreemanUK/a-long-journey-from-blackpool-3afb1848e572