Anna Round is Senior Research Fellow for the North East at IPPR North.
The recent annual report of Ofsted’s Chief Inspector highlighted what some called a ‘north-south divide’ in school performance in England. Performance regimes are necessarily limited, and the figures presented offer only one perspective on educational effectiveness in the regions. But they do point to a serious challenge for schools in the north, and for the very foundations of the Northern Powerhouse economy. While the report suggests that structural reform ‘can only go so far’, it misses the opportunity to make a proper link between education policy and devolution deals – despite sowing some intriguing seeds for such a proposal.
Sir Michael Wilshaw’s conclusion that the north can learn from the successful London Schools Challenge is almost certainly right. For example, the focus in the London programme on working at area level, sharing learning and good practice and building trust would be valuable particularly in regions where inspection outcomes are highly polarised. In the North East, local authorities such as South Tyneside, North Tyneside, Newcastle and Gateshead have a high proportion of pupils in schools judged good or outstanding (several have no schools judged as ‘inadequate’), and most show marked improvements from the previous year.
However, three of the local authorities with below 60 per cent of pupils in good or outstanding schools come from the same region. A North East Schools Challenge was among the initiatives proposed in Lord Adonis’s 2013 review of the north east economy.
However, this is not the only intervention which is needed. Teacher recruitment and retention is key. Nationally, there are reports that it is becoming increasingly difficult for schools to recruit and retain good NQTs and experienced classroom teachers, as well as school leaders. In particular, some research suggests that many teachers who move between schools may favour destinations where pupil behaviour and attainment is higher, and that rural and economically deprived areas may struggle to encourage teachers who do not have a personal connection with the locality to come and to stay.
In addition, as yet the north may have benefited less than other regions from new initiatives such as ‘Teach First’. Research by Ofsted found that in 2013 there was one Teach First trainee for every 850 secondary pupils studying in schools whose circumstances are assessed as ‘challenging’, double the proportion of trainees in the north west and north east of England.
And the problems start early. Recent research by IPPR North shows that in the north of England a lower proportion of children than in London and the south are assessed as achieving a ‘good level of development’ at the earliest foundation stage. For the poorest children this ‘early years gap’ between London and the north is a colossal 12 per cent. This ‘poor start’ can then carry all the way through a pupil’s career. There are funding issues too. The average household in London receives benefits in kind worth £610 more than the average household in the north of England, when all elements of educational expenditure are taken into account. The commitment in the 2015 Spending Review to review school funding formulae offers a chance to rebalance this.
So far the Chancellor’s Northern Powerhouse project has focused primarily on transport and connectivity. These are essential, but if they are to boost regional productivity by connecting people to jobs, northern communities need the education and skills to access the opportunities of increased investment and improved infrastructure. The Ofsted report notes that the proportion of young people who attain a S5 Level 3 qualification by the age of 19 is twelve percentage points lower in the north east than in London, yet more than three quarters of new jobs will require this skill level by 2025. Attainment at GCSE and A level are also lower in this region.
We urgently need to open up a new ‘front’ in the debate about regional rebalancing; there is overwhelming evidence that skills are critical to prosperity for regional economies and households, but educational change by its nature is a ‘slow burner’ and demands long-term and sustained vision. It also needs to start young.
Despite the demands of city regions in their devolution negotiations, there has been complete resistance from the Department for Education to any devolution of education, even in relation to the 16-18 skills budget. Some argue that with 60 per cent of schools now part of the academies programme, education policy represents decentralisation on a radical scale, but realistically, it is impossible for the Education Secretary to take personal responsibility for every single secondary school in the country. Sir Michael Wilshaw acknowledges as much with the appointment of a Schools Commissioner to address the failing schools in Bradford. But, as IPPR has long argued, it is surely time to introduce Schools Commissioners not only in failing areas but in every combined authority that wants to take on a ‘London Challenge’.