Anne Longfield: Where children live should not be a barrier to success

What can be done to boost education in the North?
What can be done to boost education in the North?
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THERE has been a renewed and positive focus on the North of England as Northern Powerhouse plans unfold. New business and transport links are being established, new approaches to leadership and governance are being developed and new schemes to regenerate many urban spaces are increasingly visible.

But what will all this mean for children growing up today and what will it take for the Northern Powerhouse promise to deliver for northern children? Most importantly, what will it offer for those that are growing up in the context of economic disadvantage which stil
casts a long shadow over so many communities?

Our Growing up North report is a culmination of a year of conversations with children, business, councils and health professionals and charities.

I am a northerner, and – of course – a proud one at that. Growing up in the North gave me values and attributes that have shaped my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

We understood from the outset that the North isn’t all the same. Like elsewhere in the country, there are hotspots of activity and wealth, there are children growing up in affluent families and there are schools and organisations that achieve extraordinary success. Research shows that children who grow up in affluent families enjoy relative success wherever they live. No surprise then that these children flourish in the North and enjoy good life chances.

However this is not the case for more disadvantaged children and the fact of the matter is that there are more disadvantaged communities in the North than many other areas of the country, and many of those have entrenched disadvantages over several generations.

Disadvantage manifests itself in childhood in many ways. A lack of confidence, uncertainty and low expectation. Isolated communities with narrow and poor job prospects. Poor school results and poor connections to further and higher education. Children in some areas look at new developments in the North but have little hope they might feel the benefits or have increased choices in life as a result.

But we also learnt that this doesn’t have to be the case.

We found great examples of northern schools boosting communication skills and confidence through languages, creative writing, public performance, visits and local heritage. We found arts, music and sports organisations that develop talent and open up opportunity.

We heard how business and schools are working together to expand horizons and raise awareness of career paths, and universities and colleges who are reaching out to disadvantaged children and finding new ways to support them to continue to study. We recommend that these approaches are extended throughout northern communities as part of a coherent plan to help disadvantaged children to succeed.

We have taken a particular interest in how children progress throughout childhood. Many will do well at primary age when schools in the North are some of the best in the country. But we have been very struck by how many children fall back during the secondary years when children growing up in the areas of greatest need often underachieve. Here hundreds of thousands of children face a double disadvantage of living in a poor community and attending a poor school.

In comparison to the experience of growing up in the other parts of the country, these children are being badly let down. Children in receipt of free school meals in London are 40 per cent more likely to get good GCSE results in Maths and English and two times more likely to go to university than children receiving free school meals in the North.

We are very clear that this needs to change and are recommending new investment and an urgent focus, backed up by joined up local plans, to transform children’s opportunities in the most disadvantaged northern communities.

The children we met in the North were ambitious and aspirational for their future. They love and are proud of the place they live. They want a future where they live near their family and community and they want jobs and opportunities to rival anywhere else in the country.

The exodus south to find work is real, but it is not what these children want. If the North is to flourish, it needs to grow and retain the talents of all its children and truly offer the opportunities in life they hope for.

There is a real sense of energy across the North of England, a feeling that now is the time to change old narratives and to use Northern-grown solutions to ensure a more prosperous future for all children. The challenges are big, but I am more convinced than ever that it can be done.

There are 3.6 million children growing up in the North. Every one of them should have the brightest future possible and best opportunities to look forward to happy, healthy and prosperous lives. Where they live and grow up should not be a barrier to making the most of their lives.

Anne Longfield OBE is the Children’s Commissioner for England. This is the foreword to her report Growing up North published yesterday.