Call for a 'Northern Challenge' for schools to improve education gap and bolster children’s ambitions

A concerted effort to improve northern schools and bolster children’s ambitions, akin to that which saw standards raised in the capital by the Labour government of the early 2000s, is “vital”, the Children’s Commissioner for England has said.

Anne Longfield made the call as Northern education chiefs and charities warned of the widening educational gap of the most vulnerable children as they face added pressure and challenges due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Read the full special Yorkshire Post education report here.Mrs Longfield, who has worked with vulnerable and disadvantaged children for more than 30 years, told The Yorkshire Post: “I would like to see a Northern Challenge for schools. London’s education system has had rocket-boosters under it... while some schools in the North are still fighting for scraps.

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“There is a zest in the North, the North is ambitious for its future. There is a really good group of people in civic life, and charities and others that are all ready to go on this but they need the Government to back the North and also provide that leadership and the kind of vehicles needed to make it happen.

Northern education chiefs and charities warned of the widening educational gap of the most vulnerable children as they face added pressure and challenges due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: Getty Images

“It can be devised by the North and run by the North.”

A child receiving free school meals in Hackney is three times more likely to go to university than a similar child in Hartlepool, the Children’s Commissioner for England said.

Last year in Yorkshire and the Humber, 11,000 children left the education system at 19, after 14 years of full-time education, without five GCSEs or the technical equivalents. Of these, 30 per cent were children eligible for free school meals.

Of the top 10 areas in the country where children leave without even the most basic level of qualifications, four are in the Northern Powerhouse region – Doncaster, Wakefield, Leeds and Knowsley.

Pictured, Anne Longfield the Children's Commissioner for England. Photo credit: Jeff Gilbert/PA

“That kind of disparity absolutely shouts of evidence that some children have fewer opportunities in parts of the country than others,” said Mrs Longfield.

“We need to get them the qualifications and the support children need to get there, but we also need to be ambitious for them - because otherwise we are going to have a generation of children from the North where the promise of the Northern renewal fails to deliver and those children need it to deliver.”

Mrs Longfield called for long-term investment in the provision of early years initiatives in the North, and then at each stage of a child’s development, to improve life chances as for decades the education system has been beset with inequalities based on region which is stifling children’s ambition in the North.

Mrs Longfield said: “If children in the North are not provided with this opportunity we will see a generation of children who fall behind, fall out of school, don’t reach their potential or move out of the area to be able to take up opportunities elsewhere.”

'Lessons on Wheels' is an initiative set-up in the Bradford 'opportunity area', helping children catch-up and supporting those struggling during the coronavirus. Pictured Organisation leader Natalie Woodley delivering a bag to Kirsty Ware and her daughter Millie Sartin. Picture credit: Jonathan Gawthorpe/ JPI Media Resell

And while she welcomed the Government’s additional £18m for an additional fourth year of funding to the opportunity areas, with the allocation of more than £9m in the North of England including £1.7m in Bradford, £1.4m in Doncaster and £1.2m to the North Yorkshire Coast, she stressed children and education must be a priority in Yorkshire as lockdown restriction continue to ease.

She said children need to be at the” top of their game” as recession hits.

“We know there are going to be tough times ahead,” she added. “For the children who haven’t been leaving school with the right levels of skills and the right qualifications or the right prospects to be able to thrive, they are going to be doubly hit by that.

“So we need those children to be confident, to be skilled and have the resilience they need not only to get through this recession but also to get on the front foot and play their part in rebuilding the North.”

Read the full report here._____________________________

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James Mitchinson