Southport gets serious in bid to tackle ‘youth flight’

Southport has long had an issue with ‘youth flight’ but Southport Education Group, Southport BID and multiple businesses are stepping up efforts to offer young people better choices in the town. Tony McDonough reports

Southport College
Main entrance to King George V Sixth Form College in Southport


Southport Education Group has seen a 70% rise in the number of teenagers enrolling at its dedicated sixth form facility.

And this, says college chief executive and principal Michelle Brabner, is a clear sign the town is getting better at persuading young people that Southport has an increasingly strong offer when it comes to work and education.

Michelle last spoke to LBN in December 2020, at the height of the COVID pandemic, when she talked about the need to diversify Southport’s economy beyond its traditional visitor economy strength.

In a fresh interview Michelle says significant progress is now being made on that front. The college is working closely with Southport BID and both small and large businesses to address the skills the town needs to grow and diversify its economy.

The college itself has certainly seen growth in those three years. At that point it had around 3,500 students. Now that figure has grown to around 4,000 with particular success in its sixth form offering.

In January 2018, following a Government review of post-16 education, Southport College merged with King George V College, which primarily offered A-level courses. And it continues to offer two distinct campuses under the Southport Education Group unbrella.

Prior to the merger King George V had seen its reputation fall following a poor Ofsted report. Parents took fright and started sending their teenagers out of the town to continue their A Level studies.

However, in the last three years the team at King George V have, according to Michelle, done a “sterling job” of turning the facility around. The reward for that has been a 70% surge in 16-19-year-olds choosing to study there.

“It was all about rebuilding the reputation of the 6th form college,” said Michelle. “The team there has done a fantastic job and are now offering a full-rounded 6th form experience.

“Apart from the actual courses there has also been a big increase in extra-curricular activities. The staff have gone full-speed in getting that experiential aspect back up and running since the pandemic.”


Michelle Brabner, Southport College
Michelle Brabner, principal and chief executive of Southport Education Group


And the Southport College campus, close to the centre of Southport, has also seen an increase in headcount. As a further education college it offers multiple opportunities for learners of all ages including full year and shorter courses.

Working with industry, and informed by the Government’s skills agenda, the college has focused on key skills in the fastest-growing areas such as construction, digital and green energy.

And it is also building on one of its longstanding key strengths in the health and social care sector. It has a broad range of learners in this area covering everything from health care to life sciences.

In 2024 the college will open a dedicated facility to offer realistic healthcare training. It will include a mock hospital ward and has been made possible through Government funding.

All this forms part of the drive by the college and multiple partners in Southport to offer young people real choices.

Michelle explained: “You can never stop youth flight. Young people will always have ambitions to go elsewhere – to universities or to employers in London or other cities such as Liverpool or Manchester.

“What is key here is choice. In years gone by young people may have felt they had no choice but to leave the town if they wanted to build a career.

“We need to have is a situation where we create a compelling offer within Southport and the Liverpool City Region – to give them that choice.

“While that takes time there is a real sign now of an awareness of what we need to do. And, in fact, we are already seeing a shift. IT specialist Techedia is creating new jobs with a new £1m HQ and law firm Fletchers is committed to growing in Southport.

“So those shifts are happening. Of course we are still seeing young people move out of the town but it is amazing to see how many come back a few years later to raise their families. They know what a great place to live in Southport is.”

Southport traditionally has a strong visitor economy. Michelle believes the town needs to continue to build on that and adds: “We have a great visitor economy and what we are also doing now is widening out those opportunities.”

Michelle sits on the board of Southport BID and Town Deal board and says it is now doing a great job of bringing businesses from across multiple sectors together for the good of Southport.

“BID’s employee forums have a real purpose, meaning and focus,” she added. “Work being done by Rachel Fitzgerald (BID chief executive) and her team is tremendous.

“It provided a vital lifeline for small firms during the pandemic. Now it has become a central coordination point for local businesses.

“As a college it is critical for us to have a strong relationship with local businesses. The skills agenda is important for FE colleges and, in fact, we have a legal responsibility to demonstrate that we are addressing the local skills needs.

“We have really embraced the need to engage with local businesses. And, further than that, we have shown that we are an integral part of the local community. We cannot exist in isolation.”


Southport College
Southport College is one of two entities within the Southport Education Group
Rachel Fitzgerald
Southport BID chief executive Rachel Fitzgerald. Picture by Gareth Jones
Crown Buildings
Crown Buildings in Southport, home to the Enterprise Arcade project


Rachel Fitzgerald, chief executive of Southport BID, said the college had a pivotal role to play in helping to future-proof Southport’s economy. She added: “It is well documented that skills are an essential component to the growth of a local economy.

“We are seeing businesses coming into Southport and we are seeing existing businesses expanding in the town. For that to be sustainable they need to have access to a pool of skilled people.

“And that works both ways. As Michelle points out there will always be young people who will leave to broaden their life and work experience but there are others who leave because they feel that they have to.

“If we offer the opportunity to learn a range of skills as well as a range of employment opportunities then, at the very least, we are giving them a choice.

“Added to that, of course, we also want to foster a start-up culture around sectors such as creative and digital. In Southport we will soon see the opening of the Enterprise Arcade, a hub for digital businesses and start-ups.

Entrepreneurs Sarah and Rick Blaney have also launched a new co-working space – Wersky – with capacity for 60 people. Underpinned by the investment in LCR Connect, Southport could become a real hub for the digital and creative sectors.

“Michelle and her team are doing an amazing job both within the college and externally through their engagement with local employers and the wider community.”

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