There are stark regional differences in the level of qualifications of people in London and south-east England compared with parts of the north, according to census data.

The new figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal the continuing divide between England’s north and south, with nearly half (46.7%) of people in London holding a degree or similar qualification (level 4 or above) compared with less than a third (28.6%) of those in the north-east. The figure is 35.8% for the south-east.

The census also shows that close to one-in-five people – equivalent to 8.8 million of those aged 16 and above in England and Wales – hold no qualifications at all. However, this figure does mark a decrease when compared with the 23% of respondents who said they held no qualification 10 years ago.

More than half the population of England and Wales now has at least two A-levels or a higher qualification, a significant shift given that in 1999 the idea of half of young adults going into higher education was seen as aspirational. (Tony Blair’s pledged target of 50% of young people attending higher education was probably reached in 2015-16.)

Level 3 education

The levels of educational attainment recorded in the census broadly mirror the large regional variations witnessed in this year’s A-levels cycle, when the attainment gap between the more affluent London and south-east regions and the north-east grew. One out of five people living in the West Midlands held no qualifications compared with the average of 18.2% recorded across England and Wales.

Henri Murison, the chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “The skills gap between north and south [England] is a serious issue. Alongside education, it is the most significant driver of why productivity is lower here than in London and the south-east, as highlighted by the northern powerhouse independent economic review.

“More skills devolution is already on the cards for Greater Manchester and it cannot come soon enough. Whitehall continues to make unwise decisions in this area and our metro mayors would be far better placed to join the dots between skills policy and local industry need.

“Skills levels in key capabilities in the northern economy, including advanced manufacturing and energy, have lagged behind the national average for many years now. This is a risk for the zero transition, as we need to be gearing up now to build and run assets like small modular nuclear reactors or hydrogen-powered trains.

“At the Convention of the North later this month we will be pushing hard for Michael Gove to rapidly devolve skills budgets as part of supercharging all of the economic drivers for the north.”

Changes to the questions posed in the 2021 census mean that this year’s results are not directly comparable with previous polls. However, the figures indicate that many more people in England and Wales are more highly educated than in previous census cycles.

More than a third of those aged 16 and over held a level 4 qualification or above in 2021, a group that includes those with a higher national certificate, national diploma, university graduates and postgraduate qualifications. This marked a significant increase from 2001 and 2011, when 19.8% and 27.2% of the same population reported this level of education, but this may be partly due to changes in methodology.

Wandsworth was among best-educated local authorities in England with 62.6% of those aged 16+ reporting a level 4 qualification or above.

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Jon Andrews, the head of analysis at the Education Policy Institute, said: “Despite talk of ‘levelling up’ disadvantaged regions across England in recent years, educational achievement in areas such as the north-east and the West Midlands still lags significantly behind the highest performing parts of the country.

“Unless wider social and economic policy can help halt this increase in persistent and deep poverty, it will be very tough for schools and colleges to deliver by themselves the greater social mobility and ‘levelling up’ that the government says it wants to deliver. Heightened support should be given to those young people that experience disadvantage growing up and a student premium, based on previous free school meal status, should be introduced to mirror the support given to disadvantaged school children and support young people in their pursuit of higher-level qualifications, no matter their background.”

In Wales, Cardiff has the highest proportion of people with a level 4 or above qualification (40%) and Blaenau Gwent the lowest (21.6%). Conversely, Blaenau Gwent has the highest proportion of people with no qualifications (27.9%), eight percentage points above the Welsh average of 19.9%.

While almost one in five people aged 16 and over have no qualifications at all, that rises to more than a quarter in some council areas including Sandwell (28.9%), Boston (27.6%) and Leicester (26.7%).

Roughly one in 19 people aged 16 and over in England and Wales reported an apprenticeship as their highest level of qualification, ranging from 3.2% in London to 6.6% in the north-east.

On census day, 21 March 2021, there were 11.5 million schoolchildren and full-time students, up from 10.8 million 10 years earlier, which means 20% of those aged five and over are in education, almost exactly the same as in the last census cycle in 2011.


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