Now invest in a generation to transform North’s schools; it’s a race against time – Tom Richmond

THE motto ‘‘Inspire A Generation’’ defined the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. Now a comparable phrase – ‘‘Invest In A Generation’’ – must epitomise the Government’s much-vaunted ‘‘Levelling Up’’ agenda.

Boris Johnson is being urged to prioritise funding in the North's schools.
Boris Johnson is being urged to prioritise funding in the North's schools.

Coined by Lord Sebastian Coe, the Sheffield-raised double Olympic champion, Tory politician and global sports leader, it embodied the ‘‘can-do’’ spirit now needed in education.

I write this as youngsters across Yorkshire and the North risk being left in the academic slow lane because of policy false starts by the Government – and town halls fully focused on Covid-19 and distracted by devolution.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Yet the debate over local government’s shake-up risks placing future council structures before key services like schools and skills. Unlike London where poor results prompted unprecedented Government intervention and investment at the turn of the century to drive up performance, this region still depends on ad hoc tokenism and performance lags well behind the South in spite of the best efforts of schools, teachers and pupils.

The Government is being urged to invest more money in the North's schools.

Despite the emergence of the Northern Powerhouse as a political and economic vision, one of the best initiatives remains the three Opportunity Areas created by Rotherham-born Justine Greening when Education Secretary. Proud of her comprehensive education, schools in Bradford, Doncaster and along the North Yorkshire coast are – thanks to this targeted investment – now seeing attainment levels rise faster than the national average as part of her desire to tackle social mobility “cold spots” to give pupils “the best start in life, no matter what their background”. For example, 24 teachers were brought in to help schools in coastal areas where picture postcard scenery masks social deprivation.

She’s not alone. Otley’s Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, says a child receiving free school meals in parts of London is three times more likely to go to university than their counterparts here. She wants to see a Northern Challenge for schools, replicating the pioneering policy which changed the whole ethos of education in London for a generation.

But – and this remains the most frustrating word of all – the Department for Education is indifferent, says former Treasury minister Jim O’Neill, one of the Northern Powerhouse’s founding fathers. He fears the DfE will continue to focus on a national approach – rather than transformative regional initiatives – unless Boris Johnson compels it to lead the ‘‘levelling up’’ agenda once a credible Education Secretary has replaced Gavin Williamson following the exams debacle.

Asked in the Commons this week about the value of early intervention, Williamson said he was being tempted into “a discussion that I probably have to have first with the Chancellor”. In truth, he’s clearly not done so.

Justine Greening is a former Education Secretary.

As such, the time has come for an Olympic-like push to seize this opportunity to transform schools and add substance to a Northern Powerhouse agenda drifting after its merger with the Transport Secretary’s brief.

The reason is this. Nine months have already passed since the Tories won an electoral mandate on the back of promises to families in ‘‘red wall’’ seats across the North to deliver Brexit and ‘‘level up’’ a London-centric economy. There’s little to show for the latter as some Tory MPs become restless, though Covid-19 could not have been foreseen.

Yet key decisions will be taken within weeks when Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivers a Budget as Britain faces its deepest recession in history and a three-year Comprehensive Spending Review which will set out the Government’s priorities for this Parliament’s duration.

Like the aforementioned Greening, he, too, is motivated by education despite a more privileged upbringing. He also says he’s even more committed to the Northern Powerhouse, but that he’s also duty-bound, as Chancellor, to bring some semblance order of public finances blown off course by coronavirus.

And here’s the challenge for political and business leaders across Yorkshire, the North West and North East – they need to push now to convince the Government to turn schools across the North into the biggest Opportunity Area of all, with strong local leadership, so pupils are not at the mercy of Whitehall’s whims and spending biases.

It’s a race against time. Next year will be too late. Many pupils have already fallen behind with their studies due to the lockdown and there needs to be a very positive response from the Treasury this autumn if transformative change in schools is to even begin next September.

It demands cross-region and cross-party co-operation – the issue of skills transcends local government boundaries – to persuade Ministers to invest in a young generation whose schooling will, in time, define the recovery from recession and the North’s future. That race starts now.

Tom Richmond is Comment Editor of The Yorkshire Post. He tweets via OpinionYP.

Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today.

Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you’ll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers.

So, please - if you can - pay for our work. Just £5 per month is the starting point. If you think that which we are trying to achieve is worth more, you can pay us what you think we are worth. By doing so, you will be investing in something that is becoming increasingly rare. Independent journalism that cares less about right and left and more about right and wrong. Journalism you can trust.

Thank you

James Mitchinson