Mind the education gap

Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England
Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England
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As a new project is launched aimed at tackling the North-South divide in education, Chris Bond talks to Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield about the challenges.

You don’t have to look far to find evidence of a North-South divide. A recent report by law firm Irwin Mitchell and the Centre for Economic and Business Research warned that the economic gap between Yorkshire and London and the South-East will widen by a staggering £50bn over the next decade.

A new project aims to tackle the North-South divide in education

A new project aims to tackle the North-South divide in education

The previous month, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the 10 places with the highest number of unemployed households in the country were all north of a line from the Severn to the Wash.

Then there’s the ever-widening gulf in house prices between the North and South which reached a record high this year.

The so-called North-South gap has become a kind of barometer reflecting the state of the nation or, more accurately, an increasingly divided nation. But it is in education where it is perhaps most significant.

Just last week Sir Michael Wilshaw, England’s chief inspector of schools, warned of a noticeable north-south divide when it comes to the rate at which schools are improving, giving children in the North poorer chances of educational success.

Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, is chairing the Growing Up North project.

Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, is chairing the Growing Up North project.

It is against this backdrop that a new project – Growing Up North – is being launched in Salford today. It aims to discover why some children in the North are worse off than their counterparts in the South.

Certainly when it comes to secondary school performances some of the statistics make for worrying reading. For instance, a pupil from a disadvantaged background is 41 per cent more likely to get five GCSEs, grades A* to C, in London than in the North of England.

This is important because if young people don’t leave school with good grades then their chances of ending up in decent jobs are diminished, and so begins a cycle of under-achievement that can blight the rest of their lives.

The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, is chairing the year-long project which she hopes will help identify the reasons behind the disparities in attainment levels which can then be tackled.

“I want every child, wherever they are born, to get the same opportunities and support to prosper. To do this, we need to understand why children do better in some parts of the country than others and what it is about the place they grow up in that supports them to succeed,” she says.

Primary schools in the North are doing quite well, but it’s between the ages of 11 and 18 where the gap widens. “There are more kids in the North who go into apprenticeships at 18 than go to university compared to their counterparts in the rest of the country,” says Longfield. “Fewer kids in the North go to the top universities than elsewhere in the country and we need to know what this means in terms of its impact on job prospects and where people live.”

One factor could be the pull of families, which are sometimes stronger in the North. “People often don’t want to leave the family network, but is this something we should be celebrating rather than seeing it as a problem?”

London has been highlighted as a model of success over the past decade, but rewind to the start of the Millennium and the capital was rife with failing schools.

“The North faces a challenge just as London did,” she says. “Fifteen years ago London had some of the most awful secondary schools in the land and now it has some of the best, and we want to do a similar thing in the North.”

One of the reasons for this transformation was the introduction of a programme that saw some of the worst schools taken oven by independent providers and turned into “academies”. So, too, was a scheme to parachute top graduates into poor-performing schools for at least two years.

This could be replicated in the North – though it’s perhaps easier to lure good teachers to the bright lights of London than it is to provincial northern towns. Nevertheless, answers need to be found – something Longfield is well aware of. “This isn’t just about finding out what the problems are, it’s also about what the solution is.”

Longfield is being joined by a panel of experts that includes, among others, Lord Haskins, chairman of Humber LEP, Opera North’s chief executive Dr Richard Mantle and former Hull teacher turned comedian Lucy Beaumont, in a bid to get to the nub of the problem.

Longfield believes that improving educational attainment in the region can bring with it wider social and economic benefits. “There is a lot going on in terms of regeneration at the moment. There are new partnerships being formed that are looking at towns and how to revitalise them,” she says.

“Yorkshire is the centrepiece of the North but its towns sometimes get referred to as ‘forgotten towns’ and we need to be creating opportunities for people no matter what their background. Regeneration and infrastructure isn’t just about improving roads and travel links, it should also be about making connections for kids that allows them to learn more and see more.”

Longfield wants the new project to help make the North-South gap “a thing of the past.” But she accepts it won’t be easy. “When I talk to a child about things they can do, they’ll say ‘that’s not something kids from round here can do’ – and we need to change that perception.

“Kids often have high ambitions until they’re about 14 and then reality sets in and too often they settle for what they can get. So it’s about instilling confidence into young people and saying that children from the whole region, no matter what their background, can succeed.”

These may sound like lofty ambitions but Longfield believes this is an opportunity to create lasting change. “At the moment too many children have limited career options that don’t match their potential. A lot of children end up settling for what’s available and part of what we’re doing is about saying to children and parents ‘you should be demanding more.’

“Yorkshire is a mighty strong region, it has immense clout and it’s about using opportunities through regeneration and through the Northern Powerhouse to have a transformational effect. We want to unlock the potential in every child but if we don’t, instead of a generation of change this will be a generation of missed opportunities.”

She says the project isn’t about policy wonks working out strategies behind closed doors. “It’s about getting the debate going. We want parents to be talking about this as much as politicians, and we want children and their families to be an important part of all this.

“Parents want the kind of opportunities they aspire to for their children without having to move to the other end of the country and this goes to the heart of what we’re trying to achieve.”

Mixed picture in the North

There are around 3.5 million children in the North of England.

At the age of 11 children in some northern areas do well, particularly in the North East – with 56 per cent of children reaching the expected standard at Key Stage 2.

By the age of 16 many places in the North have failed to keep track with the big improvements made in London schools. Last year pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were 41 per cent more likely to get five GCSEs, grade A* to C, in London than in the North of England.

At 18, a school leaver in the North is less likely to go to a top university but more likely to do an apprenticeship – with twice as many young people going on to do apprenticeships after leaving school than in London.