King's Lynn: no choice at all

January 21, 2005

When there is only one choice, there is no choice, and the options for teenagers living in the Fenlands of East Anglia are limited.

Beyond a further education college in the main urban centre, King's Lynn, the nearest two universities are both more than 40 miles away, and one of them is Cambridge.

In the bleakly flat farming land of the Fens, nearly 40 per cent of the population - dotted around in small villages and market towns - have no qualifications.

Fewer than one in ten has a degree, half the national average, according to the 2001 Census.

Agriculture and related food-processing industries - from sugar-beet processing to tinned-food companies - dominate the local economy.

While nearly 13 per cent of people in King's Lynn have a degree, 36 per cent have no qualifications at all.

As Julie Chaplin, widening participation coordinator at the College of West Anglia in King's Lynn, explains: "There are villages where there is not even a postbox. If your family doesn't own a car, the farthest you can get is as far as you can walk.

"Can you imagine how isolated people are there? Many of the kids who come here have never been on a train."

Low university participation rates are not just a problem for poor, densely populated inner-city areas, the Hefce study shows. Obstacles confronting children in the Fenlands are the same for those living in countless rural areas across the country.

The physical isolation of some of the villages is mirrored by a deep culture of insularity.

"If you look at some of the places in the Fens, most of the kids want to stay in their villages," Chaplin says.

"Their teachers say the kids don't even want to take a ten-minute bus journey to go to college because it's too far out of the area they know - too far out of their comfort zone."

As well as vocational qualifications, the college offers accredited degrees through Anglia Polytechnic University in Chelmsford and has 500 undergraduates.

"The fact that the college offers degrees is a real life-changing experience for some people - people who would never dream of leaving the area to study," Chaplin says.

There is also evidence of a modest increase over the past three years in the number of college students on further education courses who progress to university. Up to 14 per cent of full-time students now go on to apply to study for a university degree.

But the real challenge, according to Bryan Slater, director of Norfolk Local Education Authority, is persuading students from the age of 14 that continuing their studies beyond GCSE level is important. The 2001 Census shows that only 2.6 per cent of the Fenland population are schoolchildren or students aged over 16 in full-time education, which is about half the national average.

Slater says that a key concern is the choices offered to students - or rather, the lack of choices when it comes to deciding where and what to study beyond the ages of 16 and 18.

The LEA and the local learning and skills council are developing plans to increase collaboration between high schools and the further education college, Slater says, to try to ensure that students have access to the courses they are interested in.

"The groundwork is being done in areas such as West Norfolk," he says.

"We're learning the best way to deliver 14-19 education in more rural areas. Schools and colleges are seeing the need to work together.

"We have a strategic approach from the LEA and the LSC, and the way we think about it is that we have to deliver credible, relevant and varied local opportunities if we are to persuade young people that there is something for them.

"We have to do that by engaging them and helping them to see their potential at the age of 14 and showing them how they might progress - and then having that provision in place."

This view is echoed by Michael Douglas, head teacher of King Edward VII School in King's Lynn, which sends about 70 per cent of its sixth form to university each year.

"I certainly think that collaborative ways of working need to be explored," he says.

"I don't think any individual institution can provide the diet, the range of courses that students need."When 17-year-old Rob Stratton decided he wanted to study popular music, he had two choices. He could study at the College of West Anglia in King's Lynn, about 11 miles from his hometown, Hunstanton, or travel to King's Lynn to catch a train to get to Norwich and the University of East Anglia, 40 miles away.

The practical problems posed by geography made the choice for him, and he is now in the second year of a higher national diploma course at West Anglia.

In a sense, Stratton is unusual, in that one of his parents has a degree in an area where participation in higher education has been traditionally low.

Moreover, Stratton is already considering further study, perhaps a degree at Goldsmiths College in London or Southampton University.

"But I am concerned about debt, so I might use a gap year to earn some money and save up," he says.

Jake Pover (pictured left), a fellow West Anglia student, has similar concerns.

Pover, 16, is studying for a GNVQ in art and design but hopes to secure a university place in Liverpool in future.

"I think it's going to be quite expensive," he says.

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