Education gap could leave north behind, Powerhouse think-tank warns

Former chancellor George Osborne
Former chancellor George Osborne
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CLOSING the education gap with the rest of the country should be the centrepiece of a drive to grow the North economy by £100bn, according to a new report backed by George Osborne.

The former chancellor today warns the North is at a “turning point” where it could start to close the economic divide with the South or be “left behind”.

While transport is often highlighted as the key to growth in the North, the first report from Mr Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership thinktank identifies raising educational standards as the priority.

In echoes of comments from then chief inspector of schools Sir Michael Wilshaw last year, it calls for a drive to ensure the North has the same proportion of highly-rated schools as the rest of the country.

The report, to be launched in Leeds today, also demands action to cut journey times, the rolling out of ultra-fast broadband, the championing of entrepreneurship and the devolution of powers from Whitehall to the North of England.

It claims the North’s economy could grow by an extra £100bn and create 850,000 additional jobs by 2050 if the right decisions are taken now.

Speaking ahead of the report’s launch, Mr Osborne said: “Now we are at a turning point for the North of England. We can either make use of the momentum behind the Northern Powerhouse to really close the north-south gap - or we can let the moment pass, and leave our country divided and the North left behind.

“Get it right and the Northern economy will be £100bn bigger, with more jobs and higher living standards for all.

Mr Osborne launched the Northern Powerhouse Partnership last year following his sacking by incoming Prime Minister Theresa May.

While in Government, he called for the North to become an economic powerhouse by linking its towns and cities so together they could compete with major cities around the world.

His departure and later that of Lord Jim O’Neill, a longstanding champion of kickstarting the North economy, from the Government last year led to speculation Mrs May was turning her back on the Northern Powerhouse idea.

Lord O’Neill, now an NPP board member, said: “It is critical that key transport infrastructure is in place to allow people that live in the Northern Powerhouse to work together as one and not in isolation, and to connect with global markets. But transport infrastructure alone is not sufficient.

“We also need more ambitious decision making locally, and better high speed broadband.

“Something that also shines through in this report is that the education system in the North is not currently performing to its potential; in fact it is currently falling behind the South.”

Closing the gap between school standards in the North and the rest of the country was the focus of Sir Michael’s final year as he head of Ofsted.

Speaking in Yorkshire last year, he claimed the North was being “neglected” with “serious consequences for the future”.

Today’s report says: “There is now overwhelming evidence that attainment at age 16 is too low in the North, particularly amongst certain groups, lagging behind other parts of the UK and international competitors.”

Ed Cox, director of the IPPR North thinktank, said: “Northerners have long called for improvement in the schooling system and IPPR North has advocated a ‘powerhouse premium’, like the London weighting, to attract and retain great teachers.”