IN what would become his final Budget as Chancellor in March, George Osborne set out plans to improve standards in North schools.
His focus on education was the latest strand of his Northern Powerhouse initiative - his drive to close the North-South divide and make the North of England competitive in the global economy.
He made two announcements. Bradford headteacher Sir Nick Weller would be asked to carry out a review of how the gap in standards between North schools and other parts of the country could be narrowed.
Secondly, there would be new money to support this standards drive. The sum was widely reported to be £20m a year over four years or £80m in total.
Fast forward to this week’s Autumn Statement and while attention was focused on the headline gloomy economic forecasts, with little fanfare Chancellor Philip Hammond also published the review by Sir Nick ordered by his predecessor. Our report is here:
Mr Hammond also published his Northern Powerhouse Strategy which included the commitment to “a £70m Northern Powerhouse Schools Strategy”.
It was eagle-eyed Bradford East MP Imran Hussain who spotted the apparent £10m fall in the funding for this initiative.
Asked about the discrepancy, Treasury officials insisted there was a simple explanation. Promising extra money for English schools would have implications under the Barnett Formula, which governs how funding is distributed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The £80m figure took that into account, the amount for North schools was always £70m.
The only problem is the Treasury did not seem to understand these implications itself back in March.
A page on the Treasury website entitled “Budget 2016: some of the things we’ve announced” says: “The current system for funding schools will also be replaced by a fairer national funding formula from April 2017. There will be £20 million a year in additional money for schools in the north of England.”
The March Budget book said: “The Government will: invest £20 million a year of new funding in a Northern Powerhouse Schools Strategy. This new funding will ensure rapid action is taken to tackle the unacceptable divides that have seen educational progress in some parts of the North lag behind the rest of the country.”
Mr Osborne himself said: “I have today introduced a truly ground-breaking strategy to help transform northern schools through our £20m-a-year Northern Powerhouse Schools Strategy.”
There is little sign either of any attempt by the Treasury to correct the widespread reporting of £80m for North of England schools at the time.
Mr Hussain said: “At the 2016 Budget I cautiously welcomed the then Chancellor’s announcement that the Government would invest £80 million in schools in the North over four years, but I am extremely concerned that the Government has now seemingly wiped £10 million of funding from the Strategy without any real explanation, putting educational improvements in the North at risk.
“I hope that the Government has not used the spectacle of the Autumn Statement to distract attention away from this announcement on reducing funding for the Schools Strategy, and I will be pressing them to explain the reduction, and also on why it has taken so long to publish Sir Nick Weller’s report when I received assurances that it would be published in October this year.”