Census 2021: How workforce qualification levels differ across England and Wales

The qualification levels of local labour forces indicate an area’s ability to attract, retain and train highly qualified workers. It can also reflect the health of the local labour market and economy.

17 February 2023

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Education levels among local labour forces vary between areas in England and Wales. This matters, because it can indicate the quality of locally available jobs, whether they require higher levels of education and whether they are higher-paid. Areas with good educational attainment, opportunities and job markets are likely to have a richer local economy.

Meanwhile, areas with a less-qualified workforce might have fewer job opportunities for highly qualified people, struggle to train or attract and keep qualified workers, and have a poorer local economy.

This article looks specifically at adults aged 16 years and over who are either in work, or available for work and actively seeking it. People who fall into these categories are termed “economically active”. Throughout the article, when we refer to an area’s “resident workforce”, “economically active population” or “workers and job seekers”, we mean people who live in the area and fall into this group.

Further detail on the definitions used in this article, and methods used in the analysis are available in our technical annex. Information on the qualification levels can be found in our Census quality notes.

4 in 10 workers or jobseekers in England and Wales held higher education qualifications

Overall, the most common highest educational attainment level among the labour force in England and Wales was higher education qualifications (Level 4+) such as degrees or National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) levels 4 or above.

This was followed by:

  • Level 3 (upper secondary or college qualifications, such as A levels)
  • Level 2 (secondary school qualifications equivalent to five or more GCSEs)
  • Level 1 (entry-level qualifications equivalent to between one and four GCSEs)
  • no qualifications
  • apprenticeships
  • other qualifications

Around 4 in 10 workers or jobseekers in England and Wales (42%) had a higher education qualification. In London, the figure was higher, at 57%.

Nearly 6 in 10 London residents held higher education qualifications

Percentage of economically active population, by highest qualification level, Wales and English regions, 2021

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Source: Office for National Statistics – Census 2021

London had the highest concentration of resident workers or jobseekers with higher education qualifications of any region (57%), while the East Midlands had the lowest (36%).

Outside of London, Wales and the regions of England had similarly qualified labour forces. At a regional level there was no clear north-south divide in qualification levels. This is in contrast to trends in income and productivity, where previous Office for National Statistics analysis has shown a clear north-south divide at regional level.

However, much clearer inequalities in qualification levels emerge when we compare smaller areas within regions.

The map shows all local authorities in England and Wales, shaded according to a scoring system we devised based on the qualification level of the labour force who live in each locality. We explain how this was calculated in our technical annex.

Areas are shaded by quintile, from yellow for the lowest-scoring (least-qualified) fifth to dark blue for the highest-scoring (most-qualified) fifth.

When comparing the qualification profile of local areas, the highest-scoring areas had a much higher percentage of the resident workforce that held post-16 qualifications, such as A levels, degrees or NVQs.

In contrast, in the lowest-scoring areas, much more of the workforce held secondary school level qualifications (GCSEs or equivalent) as their highest qualification, or had no qualifications.

Most London boroughs were in the top 20% of areas for workforce qualification level, and none were in the bottom 20%.

When we look at the top 10 highest-ranked areas in England and Wales, 8 of them were in the English capital.

You can see more information about each area by hovering over it on the map.

The City of London (a local authority within the London region) had the most highly qualified population overall. This reflected the high percentage of residents who held degree level or higher qualifications, and the low percentage of residents who held no qualifications, or Level 1 or 2 qualifications (equivalent to GCSEs and O levels) only.

More than 82% of workers and job seekers living in the City of London held higher education qualifications. This is almost 10 percentage points higher than the next highest scoring area, Wandsworth.

However, it is important to note that the population of the City of London is very small, which means relatively few people can have a big impact on percentages.

Nearly half (44%) of the City of London’s resident workforce were employed in professional occupations in Census 2021, a classification which covers jobs in areas such as research, teaching, law and medicine. These jobs are usually paid high salaries, and require higher-level qualifications.

Both the City of London and Wandsworth fell into the top fifth of areas for this measure.

In the other highest-scoring areas, around 1 in 10 people in the labour force held qualifications up to Level 3, which includes AS and A levels. This means that overall, around 80% people had some form of post-16 qualification.

London has a high concentration of universities, providing access to higher qualifications. It is also a centre for graduate job opportunities, which helps retain qualified workers, and attract them from elsewhere. This largely explains the high qualification levels in many London boroughs.

Only 2 of the 10 highest-scoring areas were outside of London: Cambridge and St Albans, both in the East of England.

Cambridge has multiple universities and research parks, all of which create and attract a highly qualified labour force.

St Albans is within commuting distance of London, meaning higher-paid jobs in the capital are also available to locals here.

If professional jobs requiring expert training were readily available in all areas of England and Wales, we would expect the distribution of people with high-level qualifications to be fairly even between local areas.

But there are many areas with a much less-qualified resident workforce. These areas may have a poorer economy, or fewer well-paid jobs available.

Many areas in the East of England and the East Midlands fall into the lowest-ranked fifth in England and Wales.

Of the 10 lowest-scoring areas in England and Wales, 7 were in these two regions, and many were coastal.

Many coastal towns have had slower employment growth than other areas in England and Wales, another sign that these areas struggle to attract and retain highly qualified workers. People may need to leave the area to acquire higher-level qualifications or to get a job that requires more education.

The East Midlands and East of England regions also had the greatest inequality in qualification levels. The East of England was home to the ninth most-qualified area in England and Wales (Cambridge), and the 330th (Fenland).

Part of the reason for this could be that these regions contain both more deprived, coastal areas, and areas within commuting distance of London. This inequality in the southern half of England may partially explain the lack of clear north-south divide on a regional level.

Boston in Lincolnshire had the lowest score of all English and Welsh areas.

The resident workforce here had the lowest percentage of people with higher education qualifications, at 23%, although this is still the most common qualification level among workers or jobseekers who live here.

The second most common education level was not holding any qualifications at all, with almost a fifth (19%) of workers and jobseekers in Boston falling into this group.

Less than half of Boston’s labour force (47%) had post-16 qualifications.

This is reflected in the local job market. In Census 2021, 11% of workers in Boston were employed in professional occupations, the lowest percentage of any local authority in England and Wales.

Conversely, more than 18% worked in elementary occupations, which include jobs in industries such as agriculture, construction and cleaning. This is the second highest of any local authority in England and Wales, next to Leicester.

This means Boston’s local economy might suffer, by being less attractive to highly qualified workers with high earning potential.

While all of the 10 highest-scoring areas were in cities, Hull and Leicester stand out as the only cities in the bottom 10 scoring areas.

In Leicester, 35% of the resident workforce had higher education qualifications, the highest percentage among the 10 lowest-scoring areas.

However, almost one in five workers or jobseekers in the city (18%) held no formal qualifications.

Of Leicester's workers and jobseekers, 4% had an apprenticeship as their highest qualification. This was the lowest of all the bottom 10 scoring areas.

In Hull, the qualification profile was less extreme than in Leicester.

The percentage of workers or jobseekers with higher education qualifications was also relatively high, at 27%. However, the percentage with no formal qualifications was lower than Leicester, at 15%.

Of Hull's resident labour force, 7% had an apprenticeship as their highest qualification, which was among the highest of all areas in England and Wales.

Remaining in central England, the West Midlands was the region with the highest percentage of resident workers or jobseekers who had no formal qualifications, at 11%.

In the lowest-scoring local authority in the region, Sandwell, 16% of workers and jobseekers had no qualifications. Sandwell was the sixth lowest-scoring area in England and Wales.

In Stoke-on-Trent, the second lowest-scoring area in the region, 14% of the resident workforce held no qualifications, the highest after Sandwell. However, it also had the highest percentage of residents with apprenticeships in the region, at 6%.

In Wolverhampton, 14% of the local workforce had no formal qualifications.

In Birmingham, 12% had no formal qualifications.

In the West Midlands, the cities tended to be lower-qualified compared with the surrounding areas than in most other regions.

Other major cities in England and Wales, such as Cardiff, Bristol and Newcastle, are the highest-scoring areas in their respective regions.

In both the East and West Midlands, the most-qualified areas were less populated towns, while cities such as Birmingham and Leicester had lower rankings.

The highest-scoring area in the West Midlands was Warwick, where more than half of the resident workforce held higher education qualifications (55%).

The University of Warwick, which sits partially in the neighbouring local authority of Coventry, likely plays a part in Warwick’s relatively high rank.

Coventry, however, ranked more than 170 places below Warwick, despite the universities of both Warwick and Coventry falling within its boundaries.

The differences between Warwick and Coventry show that local education centres alone do not guarantee a highly qualified and highly paid labour force. There may be other factors, such as job opportunities and other lifestyle differences driving more highly qualified workers towards Warwick.

The highest-ranked areas in the West Midlands may reflect the “commuter effect”, where highly qualified people live outside of cities but work inside them.

The commuter effect is not on display in Wales, where the area with the most-qualified resident labour force is the capital city of Cardiff.

In Cardiff, 52% of the resident workforce held higher education qualifications.

Blaenau Gwent is the local authority with the lowest score in Wales; 14% of workers and jobseekers here had no formal qualifications.

It is the only Welsh local authority to be in the bottom 10 scoring areas in England and Wales.

Compared with the rest of Wales, more people in Blaenau Gwent reported secondary school level qualifications, such as GCSEs, as their highest education level (18%).

While London stands out in having a more highly qualified resident workforce than other areas of England and Wales, there is less difference between regions outside the English capital.

The biggest differences are visible when comparing smaller areas, with clearer inequalities in qualification levels found within regions than between them.

Many of the areas with the most-qualified resident labour forces are in London and the South East. Overall, the least-qualified areas are not as closely clustered, although coastal areas in central England stand out.

In general, the divide between the most-qualified and least-qualified areas is localised, rather than on a regional or national level.

Explore areas with similar qualification profiles

The system developed for this analysis ranks local areas by a score that combines all qualification levels reported by workers and jobseekers who live in an area.

This means that two areas that are very closely ranked could have a very different mix of qualifications in their respective labour forces.

You can search a local area here to find out which other areas of England and Wales have the most similar qualification profiles.

The higher an area’s score, the more highly qualified the resident workforce is, on average.

However, areas with similar scores may not have similar profiles. Bradford, for example, ranks relatively low (283rd) because many resident workers and jobseekers sat at the extreme ends of the scale. More than a third of the resident workforce held higher education qualifications, and more than 1 in 10 held no qualifications at all.

Rochford in the East of England ranks very closely to Bradford (286th), but has quite a different profile. A smaller percentage of the resident workforce held no qualifications or higher education qualifications than in Bradford. Meanwhile, a much higher percentage of Rochford’s labour force held secondary school and post-16 level qualifications.

The structure of the local labour market and economy is therefore likely to be very different to Bradford’s.

Source: Office for National Statistics – Census 2021

You can use the interactive to find areas with a similar qualification profile to where you live.

This might suggest the local economy and labour markets are similar.

Select any area to explore the qualification profile, and see similar areas.

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How Adur compares

Adur is ranked 242 out of 331 English and Welsh local authorities.

This puts it in the bottom 40% of areas.

The five most similar areas to Adur in terms of qualification profile are:

  1. Folkestone and Hythe
  2. Gloucester
  3. Southend-on-Sea
  4. Thanet
  5. Newark and Sherwood

The most similar area, Folkestone and Hythe, was ranked six places higher than Adur.

Workforce qualification levels data

You can find the data used in this analysis, including qualification levels among workforces by region and local authority, index scores and the most similar area profiles in the associated data tables.

Further information

This analysis used data on highest qualification level from Census 2021. Further information on the data, the methods used in the local authority rankings and definitions are explained in our technical annex.

Further information is available in the Census 2021 quality and methodology information (QMI) report.

You may also be interested in our topic summary of qualification levels among all people aged 16 years and over in England and Wales, as well as students and those in school. This article examines qualification levels among the whole population, rather than just those in the workforce.

You can explore data released so far from Census 2021 using our Census maps online tool.


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