Libby Nicholas: Closing the North-South attainment gap must start in our schools

Skills is the number one issue facing Yorkshire.
Skills is the number one issue facing Yorkshire.
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I SPEND my time split between the North and South of England. There are many great advantages to life in the North. More affordable housing than in the South, beautiful countryside, thriving culture, great universities and, some would say, friendlier people – and who are we to disagree? But we all know that life for some in Yorkshire and the rest of the North can be hard.

We can see it with our own eyes but the official statistics paint a worrying picture. Unemployment is higher in the North and personal wealth is lower. Life expectancy and the various measures of health and wellbeing point to poorer outcomes. And what’s more, this has been true for a long time now.

Politicians have recently announced a raft of measures designed to close what we have all come to know as the “North-South Divide”. Substantial devolution to cities, the Northern Powerhouse and now Theresa May’s regional industrial strategy are well-designed and might collectively make a difference. Time will tell.

But of all the initiatives, arguably the one that has received the least attention is actually the most interesting. This is the Children’s Commissioner’s new initiative designed to look at the North-South divide amongst children and young people.

“Growing Up North” – launched in Hull last Friday – brings together a group of talented and experienced people from across the Northern region from business, the public sector, the arts and the sporting world. The initiative will examine the transition from childhood to adulthood, considering where challenges lie, and identify what opportunities are available to young people.

But most importantly, it will seek to understand children’s attitudes, aspirations and expectations here in the North of England. As someone who spends their working life trying to raise children’s aspirations – in our family of schools at Reach4 – it is encouraging to know that this is being taken seriously by people advising on policy for the region.

For those of us involved in running schools, there is a moral imperative to ensure that standards are very high in the classroom.

As I have written here before, that means four key things above all: that we teach children a vast amount of subject knowledge in our curriculums; that we test children regularly to measure progress; that we teach them the importance of culture; and that we have the highest expectations of when it comes to their behaviour. I am part of the Parents & Teachers for Excellence movement that is spreading these ideas across the country, and I encourage you to join.

The simple fact is that we can only create high standards within schools if we all collectively believe that every child is capable of reaching their potential with an excellent academic education. Of course, some children are more academically gifted than others. Not everyone has the potential to score A*s across the board and get a First Class degree and a PhD.

But more children have the ability 
to reach these top grades than currently do – and more children have the ability to secure five decent grades in academic subjects than currently do. This sort 
of academic success is absolutely crucial for young people as they make their way out into the world. The days of just 
being able to walk into a job at a local factory are long gone. Academic success matters.

Why is it that we think nothing of lots of young people from local private schools securing a pile of A*s and yet the same set of results would be considered to be exceptional for those that attend local state schools?

Why do we think nothing of the astronomically high numbers of kids getting five good grades in academic subjects at those fee-paying schools but tolerate low rates of success from those that our own children attend?

Closing the North-South divide must start in schools. We need to make our schools as good as those in the South and London so that our children have the same opportunities to succeed.

This is what drives us at Reach4, and everything we do is about inspiring all 
of our pupils beyond measure so that they go on to be the very best possible versions of themselves. And I know we are not alone: many other schools across Yorkshire and the North of England have the same high expectations. We look forward to welcoming the Children’s Commissioner’s team to our academies to discuss these issues with us.

Libby Nicholas is on the Advisory Council of Parents and Teachers for Excellence (www.parentsandteachers.com) and the chief executive of the Reach 4 Academy Trust.