Improving education in the North more important than HS2 says former Treasury Minister

Lord Jim O'Neill gives a speech on the Northern Powerhouse at Sheffield University.
Lord Jim O'Neill gives a speech on the Northern Powerhouse at Sheffield University.
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Getting education right in the North is “more important” than key infrastructure projects, according to the former Treasury Minister who helped develop the Northern Powerhouse concept.

Economist Lord Jim O’Neill told The Yorkshire Post that when it came to tackling the North-South divide, whatever focus there was on infrastructure, it would not make any difference without “confident people who can cope with the changing needs of the world”.

“Getting education right for young people and the next generation is more important than HS2 or anything to do with infrastructure,” he said.

His comments come ahead of an inaugural dinner being hosted this evening by SHINE: Support and Help IN Education, a charity which helps disadvantaged children.

SHINE relocated from London to Leeds in 2017 in order to focus on raising achievement across the Northern Powerhouse region. The trust, which was founded by a group of philanthropists in 1999, including Lord O’Neill, aims to help level the educational playing field outside the capital, taking the best of its learning from London but playing to local strengths and needs.

Lord O’Neill, who is a trustee of SHINE, said: “We want to help improve the educational outcomes for children who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance.”

About a third of schools in the North are rated as requiring improvement or inadequate compared with just 14 per cent in London, while northern pupils also under-perform compared with the national average.

Lord O’Neill said he believed the gap was getting bigger and the charity, led by chief executive officer Fiona Spellman, was working to tackle the issue, with a focus on three main areas – the early years, the transition from primary to secondary and the transition from secondary into work.

He said: “If you look at evidence of where the North falls short, it is predominantly in these three areas. We want to play a big role in being a catalyst in transforming things.”

Amongst other projects, the charity will explore how it can help to improve on the Government’s ‘opportunity area’ programme, which was launched by the former education secretary

Justine Greening in 2016 as a way of boosting “social mobility cold spots”. In total there are 12 opportunity areas, including the North Yorkshire coast, Bradford, and Doncaster.

Lord O’Neill said as well as a focus on young people, the charity would also explore ways of offering guidance for parents on how to ensure their child gets the right education to help them succeed.

It is hoped this evening’s charity dinner, entitled ‘Realising Potential in the North’, will help to raise awareness of the trust’s work and stress the urgency for action to address the education gap in the Northern Powerhouse.

SHINE has set an ambitious target to catalyse at least £25m into education programmes across the North by 2025 and is hoping to attract financial backing and support from guests in order to achieve this.

Lord O’Neill, who is vice-chair of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “Twenty years ago, people used to think schools in places like Hackney would never improve, but they did.

“I have hope they can definitely improve in the North.”