Now make ‘levelling up’ a national priority in education – Jim O’Neill

EVER since the Northern Powerhouse project got underway in 2014, I have believed that it would take a generation of truly focused successful policies for it to work.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is still caught up in a political maelstrom following this year's A-level and GCSE results.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is still caught up in a political maelstrom following this year's A-level and GCSE results.

I thought this before I joined the Government in May 2015, and based on my experience as a Minister in the Treasury under George Osborne when David Cameron was Prime Minister, 
I felt the same when I left office, and have done since.

Under Cameron and Osborne, despite their own strong commitment to the concept of the Northern Powerhouse, some departments interpreted their own commitment in a fashion that was consistent with their predetermined stance, so this reduced the focus of some initiatives.

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And since they left, it is my impression that the subsequent governments of Theresa May, and so far, Boris Johnson, have neither had the same overall commitment, which amongst other things, allows various departments even more leeway to choose their own commitment to suit their wishes.

Lord Jim O'Neill, a former Treasury minister and one-time chair of Goldman Sachs, is also one of the original architects of the Northern Powerhouse.

As I shall discuss more, this is a particular issue for education given the ideology of the Department of Education.

I have also believed, since my own early involvement in the concept of the Northern Powerhouse, that six ingredients were necessary in order for it to be successful, each being insufficient on their own.

Firstly, devolution of policies, tax raising and spending decisions to local authorities, and the introduction of elected Mayors.

Secondly, more infrastructure, especially transport, but also modern technology, especially communications. This is highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic and has become more obvious, in my view.

Is the Department for Education focused on the Northern Powerhouse? Lord Jim O'Neill suggests not.

Thirdly, more value added businesses to be created across the North, both in terms of businesses originating out of the North, and others being relocated there from elsewhere in the world.

Fourth, linked to these three and the next two, a whole new level of ambition from local leaders and citizens to help present the North as a different place than that exposed to the economic forces which undermined it in the past, including a desire for more accountability and leadership.

Fifth, significant improvement in the skills training and outcomes in order to help deliver the above.

And sixth, a much better outcome for the North’s children and young people in terms of education.  

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson continues to come under fire.

I believe all six are necessary, but if there was one more important, in my view, it is education.

I have often believed educational improvement is probably the greatest goal of policy in the pursuit to boost productivity in any country.

Evidence still shows that there are many more areas of weakness and the mean average of school outcomes being below London and the South East, especially following the strong improvements of the past 20-25 years in the latter.  

For a government committed to so-called levelling up, understanding these variations should be a huge priority. As the past week’s events over GCSE and A-level results have demonstrated, clearly this Government has not done so.

Ignoring whether the core mistake lies more with Ofqual or the Department of Education, the DfE has never really been on board with the geographic aspects of levelling up, preferring to adhere to a philosophical mantra that its purpose is to improve educational outcomes for all.

While this is admirable in principle, the culture of the department seems oblivious to the regional differences that exist.

It turned a blind eye to the educational aspects of the Northern Powerhouse agenda under David Cameron and George Osborne, and now, it sticks to its same philosophy.

Introduce more academy chains, boost the quality of teaching more in the North (and elsewhere), and as night follows day, so will educational outcomes improve.

Except for the fact that there is quite a bit of evidence that the big rise in educational attainment in tough parts of London probably result just as much, if not more, from the ambition of parents for their children, often second generation immigrant families.

Now that the Government has made the inevitable U-turn and decided to accept predicted grades for 2020 A-level and GCSE results, it should now get serious about dealing with education under performance in pockets of the North (and others, notably areas of the Midlands).

It needs to pursue a more geographic approach to the use of the Pupil Premium and reward areas that especially use the evidenced-based more successful programmes, treat Opportunity Areas more seriously, commit to them for longer, and instead of just dictating terms as to how they operate, devolve locally to those with deep understanding of their history and challenges to implement with accountability.  

In addition, the determination of the Pupil Premium should be changed to reflect the length of time a pupil is eligible for it rather than whether a student is eligible for free school meals.

As the charity SHINE, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and others have shown, all available evidence suggests this would help improve school attainment. All of these should be done alongside the core admirable pursuit of better schools and higher teaching standards.  

And if the Prime Minister ever intends to be serious about his much talked levelling up agenda, he needs to instruct the entire Department for Education that levelling up is not an option. It should be the priority he claims.

Lord Jim O’Neill of Gatley is Vice Chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, former Treasury Minister and an architect of the Northern Powerhouse.

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