Breaking down barriers: practical ways of tackling the ‘Town-Gown’ divide in Durham


Durham has a, to a large extent justified, reputation for a quite significant divide between local residents and students. A routine fixture of most university towns, the so-called town-gown divide is exacerbated in Durham due to a range of factors. For example, there is at Durham a disproportionate number of students from more privileged socio-economic backgrounds including very large and disproportionate numbers who attended private, fee-paying schools, or who were educated at selective grammar schools (which, while state-owned, do tend to attract a more affluent clientele). These backgrounds contrast starkly with Durham’s Northern English, ex-coalmining and proudly working- class heritage.

In the longer-term steps can be taken to break down these barriers to accessing an elite higher education experience offered at Durham and other Russell Group universities. Government could address this problem through levying 20% VAT on the cost of a private education; currently fee-paying schools are exempt from paying this tax, as they hold charitable status – a change in such a status would free up more funding for investment in state schools, delivering more progression to higher education among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Such investments could not be more needed at this time, with the recent RAAC scandal which threatens to leave a generation of Britons behind.

Beyond government, higher education institutions themselves have a pivotal role to play in ensuring more social mobility. For example, they could fund more outreach projects and collaborate much more closely with local state schools to foster strong networks of support and engagement. Moreover, they could play a more active and involved role in connecting high-flying alumni, who have forged successful careers in the worlds of politics, the civil service, science, business and the arts and culture, and who have invaluable knowledge and experience to share, with local state school students, to help with university applications and other outreach initiatives.

Government and society holds a vital role in the fight for progress

However, while all such measures are invaluable, and have their place in a changing, more forward-thinking Britain, perhaps the most direct and grassroots agents for change are us – the students of universities such as Durham. We have recently graduated from schools or sixth forms, and have borne the bruising process of applying to elite universities, so we know better than most what routes to pursue towards success, and which to avoid. We are perfectly poised to support local state school students living in Durham into higher education, and the manifold economic, intellectual, and societal benefits that accompany advanced study, if only we can seize this opportunity for mutual growth and development.

Last year, I joined the DUSVO (Durham University Volunteering and Outreach) bespoke 1:1 tutoring service, which pairs Durham University student mentors with Durham state school students. This experience has become one of my personal favourite achievements in first year, with many treasured memories and deep connections, giving me a much greater sense of purpose. Indeed, I will never forget the moment when one of my tutees, normally reticent and lacking confidence, was able to confidently describe the literary techniques used in one of the poems on his GCSE English syllabus to me. He subsequently went on to secure a much higher grade than he had been initially predicted to achieve – in large part because he had had that extra guidance, support and encouragement, to open his horizons and give him confidence in his own abilities and potential.

While you should not be forced to feel that you should work hard to improve society unsupported – government and civil society holds a vital role in the fight for progress, and will be needed if we are to bring about transformative change – we all can still play our part, and build the Britain (and the world) that we want to live in. So, join that outreach programme or volunteer network; get involved in your new community, beyond the Durham University ‘bubble’; and be a positive agent of change.

Photography by: Tim Packer

4 thoughts on “Breaking down barriers: practical ways of tackling the ‘Town-Gown’ divide in Durham

  • Hi Dan

    How about you don’t treat the north like a second class, so downtrodden they are so grateful for your help. Their are so many people, students and mentors from the city and the north east who have given their lives and time to the university and all its colleges.

    Your article is out of date and prejudice.

    Like to know what you based it on.

    • Learn your there,their, bud before you.ll be taken seriously

  • The assumption that the writer wants us to make us that they were the reason the child increased their grade, not the hours of extra exam prep fine by the school. This highlights the gap between the privileged and the ‘others’. Many if the Durham students I come across are so out of touch with the real world that is scary that it’s these minority types that run the country.

  • My daughter was supported by the 1 to 1 tutoring program for her GCSE Maths with which she was struggling. I don’t underestimate the work that she and the school did, but the additional support, and some different techniques gained in the free tutoring gave her more confidence of her abilities.
    She’s now starting her 3rd year at the University of Lancaster and hopes to start a Master’s next year, funnily enough at Durham Uni.
    We appreciate this tutoring activity and hope that more Durham students can take part.


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