Children’s education stuck in the Northern Poorhouse: but whose fault is that?

There's no doubting the beauty and grandeur of the North: but cold comfort comes from Westminster for Northern schools

This post is based on an education blog originally published in the Tes online on 4th February

Too many children in the North are not getting the education they deserve. What we’ve known for a long time is now official:  recently the Tes reported, “Disadvantaged teenagers in the North of England score around a grade lower on average in their GCSEs compared to their better-off peers, according to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) study.”

Whenever this kind of shock-horror headline appears, demands follow that “Someone should do something!” But, I wrote in some anger, people “down south” have no business blaming the North for wringing its hands and doing nothing: people up here are more likely to complain that it’s Westminster that’s burying its head in the sand.

Following that headline BBC Radio 4’s Today programme interviewed former Chancellor George Osborne, now editor of the Evening Standard. He insisted that the key to raising productivity and wealth in the North East is education. Doomed to be remembered forever as the Chancellor who crafted austerity, but nowadays mellowing amid the metropolitan media, he denied that the problem stemmed partly from the financial squeeze he initiated: then he added insult to injury by lecturing the current regime on the need to put more money in. I nurture a vision of a Northern Powerhouse: but Osborne helped to render it a Northern Poorhouse, and this urging from him now is frankly pretty rich (pun intended).

Still, he was right that it is all about education, as those working in the North’s schools know all too well. A decade ago I took up the headship of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne and quickly encountered that fantastic  organisation run by the region’s heads for its schools, SCHOOLS NorthEast. Back then it was urging the government to launch a North East Challenge school improvement programme to emulate the successful London model. Indeed, the first SCHOOLS NorthEast meeting I attended was with Department for Education officials. Sanctuary Buildings (Education HQ in Westminster) appeared to favour some kind of challenge: but the mandarins insisted there would be no money to fund it.

There still is none. In response to current pleas, new education secretary Damian Hinds and anonymous DfE officials alike parrot: “There’s more money in the education system than there has ever been.” That may be true in cash terms: but there are also more children in the system than there have ever been, so there’s less cash per head. The more schools howl their pain, the more the DfE resembles a troublesome child sticking its fingers in its ears and yelling, “La la la! Can’t hear you!”

It won’t do. While designing that North East Challenge (it was a good plan), we researched the London trailblazer. It was about building capacity. Led by the charismatic Tim Brighouse, schools collaborated: there was whole-school, cross-school, whole-staff commitment to improvement and training. Teachers shared twilight sessions to raise their game and thus that of their pupils. The energy unleashed was enormous.

Two additional elements were central to London Challenge’s success, however. First, £30 million was injected, to fund all those training and improvement programmes.

Second was the sheer proximity to the seat of power. London could easily prise MPs out of Parliament to visit, launch, support and encourage new initiatives. Yes, ministers put themselves about: but, hey, they could pop out to Poplar, wander off to Wandsworth and still be back in Westminster for lunch.

The North is, it appears, far beyond policymakers’ ken and comprehension: out of sight, out of mind. Westminster thinks the North is Leeds, so it’s designed HS2 to stop there: Newcastle lies 100 miles further north, while England continues 75 miles beyond it to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Indeed, the sheer mileage involved in just connecting Berwick and, say, Middlesbrough was always a problem for SCHOOLS NorthEast when setting up meetings and conferences: distance may lend enchantment, but it’s a challenge!  Interestingly, recently-retired Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw, noted for his trenchant speaking out, said in response to the story that education ministers should, in effect, get their arses up north on a regular basis, show their faces, listen and learn a bit: if only!

Currently an exile, working down South and frequently missing the glories of Northumberland I feel, all too keenly, how far North the North lies.

I’m neither blind nor deaf to the problems: and when (as now) I’m back home in the North, I feel its pain. But I don’t make the policy that leaves its schools impoverished: and it’s not me spouting platitudes while withholding the money essential to improve matters.

Nonetheless, I’m furious on behalf of my former colleagues still heroically, tirelessly fighting educational battles in the Northern Poorhouse and given scant credit for their work.

The children of the North deserve better.


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