THERE is no doubt that there has been a dramatic change in the political landscape of the North over the last week since election.
As Children’s Commissioner for England, and a Northerner myself, the big question for me is whether this seismic shift will translate into improved prospects and life chances for children growing up in Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester and the hundreds of villages and towns across the north of England.
During the election there were a confetti of promises of a Northern spending spree, with Boris Johnson pledging billions for the Midlands and the North via big infrastructure projects.
For the Northern Powerhouse, who have been pressing the Government hard over many years now for a bigger slice of the cake, this should be a huge opportunity. But, as someone who has joined their campaign for a better deal for the North, I want to see a decent amount of these extra billions spent on tearing down the barriers that have held back too many Northern kids.
Last year I published a report showing how many of these children are missing out on the same opportunities as their peers in the South. It set out how stark this opportunity gap can be, showing that while London’s education system has had rocket-boosters under it for nearly two decades, some schools in the North are still fighting for scraps.
This won’t come as a shock to many of us who live in the North. Are we really surprised that a child receiving free school meals in Hackney is three times more likely to go to university than a similar child in Hartlepool? Or that there are parts of the North where you’d struggle to find anywhere that actually teaches A-levels? Imagine the Government’s reaction if the same were true in Buckinghamshire.
Meanwhile, there are thousands of children leaving school in our regions without the most basic qualifications. Over a third of children who get free school meals are leaving school without the Level 2 attainment they need to get on training courses and apprenticeships, and the gap between those children living in the least and most deprived areas – which includes some parts of the North – is rising year on year. Recently, I met a young boy from the North East who told me he didn’t know any adult who had a full time job. Not surprisingly, his own aspirations were low.
So what does the new Government need to do to fulfil its election promises to the parents of these children and to tackle the deep-seated, generational problems holding back those children in the North who need the most help?
I want to see a relentless spotlight on these areas. Let’s give them the same rocket-boosters that London schools had in the 2000s. That means the schools in the North who are not providing the best education are given the extra resources they need to turn themselves around – help with recruitment so that top teachers are attracted to work in Northern towns, extra tutoring for those kids falling behind from a young age and help for parents struggling to provide the support their children need to do well.
Closing the North-South divide has to mean closing the attainment gap between the richest parts of the country and the poorest Northern regions. No child in a mainstream school should be leaving with next to no qualifications after 15 years of education.
So let’s invest in early years support – end the postcode lottery for services like speech and language therapy, so vital for the many children in the North who aren’t ‘school ready’ when they go into reception, identify children with Special Educational Needs early and properly fund their education.
When children leave school there has be to something good to go on to. We need quality careers advice that provides a proper pathway to good jobs, apprenticeships or university, and more done to attract big firms to invest in those areas where too many jobs are poorly paid and short term.
If there is going to be an electric cars revolution, why can’t it happen in the North? If we are training up thousands of new NHS workers, why not do it in parts of the country where opportunities are scarce?
Every child growing up in the North deserves the same chances as a child in London or the South East. Spending billions on infrastructure schemes that create jobs for a few years and then returning to normal just won’t be enough. We need systemic, long term change that gives every child growing up in the North a chance to do well.
And if they don’t? Politicians should never forget that one day those children will be adults with a vote. They will judge whether the promises that were made to improve the North was all just election hot air, or whether it is their generation that finally benefits from the promise of the Northern Powerhouse.
Anne Longfield OBE is the Children’s Commissioner for England.