During Wednesday’s Education Select Committee evidence session, Lord Jim O’Neil and Henri Murison of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) discussed the current state of education in the north of England and how schools and training can be improved in the region.

NPP’s 2018 report, ‘Educating the North’ highlights the entrenched inequalities in educational opportunity and attainment between the north and south of England, particularly the capital. The report demonstrates that there is an urgent need for action to close the gap in attainment and opportunity between the north and south. This was emphasised in Wednesday’s evidence session.  

While Ofsted data shows that the gap between school performance in the north and south is gradually shrinking, the 2018 Children’s Commissioner report on the Northern Powerhouse project highlighted the fact that more than half of the secondary schools serving the north’s most deprived communities are underperforming. Analysis by the New Schools Network shows that ¾ of “stuck schools” – primary schools which have been judged as Satisfactory, Requires Improvement or Inadequate at every Ofsted inspection since 2005 - are based in the north or the Midlands, and only three are in London. To add insult to injury, “stuck schools” tend to have greater levels of disadvantaged pupils – those most in need of the opportunities a good education can offer.

With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that educational performance in the north of England lags behind educational performance elsewhere, particularly in the capital. NPP’s report on 'Educating the North' shows that at the age of 16, northern pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve an average Attainment 8 score of 6.5 points below that of their peers in London. A child who is eligible for free school meals in Hartlepool is three times less likely to attend university than a child of the same means in Hackney, one of London’s poorest boroughs. That isn’t to say that entrance into university is the only signifier of a good education, but every young person should have the freedom to decide whether higher education is the right option for them. Young people’s futures shouldn’t be fixed according to where they grew up.

While there is clearly a need to close the educational opportunity and attainment gap between the north and south, many of the worst-performing regions have sufficient school places, meaning that potential free school applicant groups in these areas fail to meet the DfE’s basic need criteria. In order for new schools to have maximum positive impact in the north, they need to be set up in areas with high levels of disadvantage and low educational standards by people who understand the local context. Of the open free schools in the North, 80% have been rated Good or Outstanding. Free schools such as West Newcastle Academy, which was established by a local charity, and Cramlington Village Primary School, which was established by a group of teachers have raised educational standards and aspirations for children and young people in highly deprived communities in the North East. More schools like this are needed across the region. Educational standards in London have transformed over the last 15 years, demonstrating that the same can be achieved in the north.

While it is encouraging to hear that the delivery of high-quality education and skills is at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse agenda, we should now be looking into how this will be implemented. If we are to successfully challenge the entrenched inequalities between the north and south, and instill confidence in the next generation, then new, innovative provision is urgently needed, particularly in the region’s most disadvantaged areas. 

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