THIS Government is full of mysteries, but nothing is quite as perplexing as the loss of Justine Greening as Secretary of State for Education. No politician has been better placed to understand the concerns of parents, teachers and young people in our region than this Rotherham-born politician, the first Education Secretary to be taught entirely in the comprehensive system.
I’m still puzzled as to why the Prime Minister thought it wise to dismiss the 48-year-old from post; Ms Greening had not been in the job long enough to achieve even half of the potential she promised.
Still, in today’s confusing political times, there is no point trying to make sense of too much. Let’s at least take something positive from what looks like a pointless reshuffle; Ms Greening might be better placed away from the Cabinet table. Returning to the backbenches gives her more freedom to speak on the things that matter.
She has wasted no time in speaking up on social mobility, telling the Government that it still has “a big job of work to do” if it is to transform the fortunes of young people in the North. Her idea is simple; that every young person in our region should have the opportunity to get a better job than their parents. And if they choose, this job could be in Yorkshire, or Lancashire, or Cumbria, not London and the South-East.
We need such strong voices to speak up on our behalf. And to keep on speaking. A major new report from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) on education and skills is calling for wide-scale intervention to help our children reach their potential and contribute meaningfully to the economy and society.
The study, Educating the North, argues that three major factors are affecting the prospects of the next generation – the importance of a child’s early years in their future development, how disadvantage drastically impairs performance and leaves youngsters behind the rest of the UK when they leave school and the need for businesses across the North to play a much bigger role in providing meaningful experience of work.
The report makes sobering reading. Yet, I doubt that most Ministers will give it more than even a cursory glance. Although the NPP makes a series of strong recommendations and highlights positive areas for growth – such as the potential for degree apprenticeships delivering a genuine mix of vocational and academic education – there is that sinking feeling that it will fall on deaf or dismissive ears.
For instance, it calls for major investment to help families who are worse off. An initial £300m increase in Government funding for disadvantaged areas across the North is recommended, creating place-based funds integrated with other services such as health visitors and voluntary sector providers to ensure every child is ready mentally, physically and emotionally to start school by the age of five.
To implement this would require a complete volte-face by the Government, which is busily dismantling the benefits system to roll out Universal Credit, leaving millions of families financially worse off than ever. In this climate, where is that £300m going to come from?
And as for the suggested “health visitors” and “voluntary sector providers”, ask any parent about such support and most will tell you that it’s already cursory and getting worse.
If the May government has achieved one thing, it has been to widen the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. And the fact is disproportionate numbers of the latter live above the Watford Gap. Such is the scale of the problems – this NPP report alone makes 14 recommendations – affecting the North of England, Westminster seems to have effectively washed its hands of us.
Why else are too many of our teenagers leaving school on average one GCSE grade behind their counterparts in more affluent parts of the country? Any responsible Prime Minister should be committed to sorting this out, not swapping Education Secretaries seemingly on a whim. As the report’s school leadership spokesperson, Rasksha Pattni, says, more work “is needed to attract and retain the very best school leaders and teachers to serve the communities hardest hit”.
My 12-year-old daughter would agree; since she started secondary school in September she has not had a permanent teacher of science. She’s never going to excel in this subject filling in worksheets handed out by a supply stand-in.
This very basic level of recruitment and retention needs serious attention before we can even start to talk about improving grades.
That’s why I say good luck to Ms Greening in her quest. Many things are pointless in today’s politics, but a Yorkshire voice in Parliament promoting the cause and concerns of young people in the North is not one of them.