Successful trusts need to leave their cosy London bubble if education in the north is to improve, says Jonathan Booth.

The difference between deprived secondary schools in the north and south is stark.
Ofsted called this a “postcode lottery” in its annual report for 2014-15, adding: “What we are seeing is nothing short of a divided nation after the age of 11.”

But it is not surprising that London still has the best schools in even the most disadvantaged areas – hugely successful multi-academy trusts (MATs) and pioneering free schools are ever-increasing their stranglehold on the best teaching talent in times of stuttering retention and morale. Who wouldn’t want to work alongside the best teachers, often implementing pioneering pedagogy, with fast promotion and cross-industry prestige?

Entice aspirational teachers to swap the bright lights of London for the likes of Blackpool

The National Teaching Service (NTS), designed to entice aspirational teachers to swap the bright lights of London for the likes of Blackpool, is supposed to go some way to solving the problem. But we have a “school-led system”, one where changes come from the schools themselves, and parachuting in a few southerners is arguably not the most sustainable policy initiative.

Instead, what’s required is for the best MATs to make their way up north, and to take their best teachers (and their ever-successful recruitment
drives) with them. We need to get schools up there first, before we get the teachers to go alongside them.

With the death knell for local authorities ringing long ago, MATs now have not just a local responsibility, but a national one. Hugely successful chains that still will not go further than the Midlands, such as Ark and Harris, must consider that their monopoly on teaching talent is cannibalising the relatively small pool of top practitioners, and that the “cultural shift” harked by Ofsted in its last national report must come from these trusts. They need to venture up the M1, rather than further consolidate a part of the country that is already storming ahead of the rest.

Perhaps, more cynically, MATs must consider the possibility that another chain could “get there first”, with the north a ripe fruit waiting to be picked.

Alongside this, MATs must investigate why the north-south divide does not seem to exist in the primary sector; if forced academisation ever happens, swathes of good and outstanding primaries in the north will need to be swooped up; fantastic practice, expertise, and cross-collaboration links are there for the taking. Arguably the work going on in northern primaries, often in even more disadvantaged circumstances than down south (but too often squandered by failing secondaries) would alone be worthy of MAT investigation for their own research and development.

Trusts must consider the north a ripe fruit waiting to be picked

MATs must encourage ambitious leaders to move through internal, targeted secondments and fast-track leadership schemes, perhaps with the help of the NTS’s relocation funds.  In a school-led system, such organisations must lead the development of good teaching through national research and multi-sector collaboration. Most importantly, these MATs must leave their cosy London bubble and become national institutions; local needs in the north are not being served by local interests, and it is up to the leading MATs to expand northwards.

If MATs make their way north, it might also help to end the deafening silence from northern schools and teachers in policy discussions.

Anecdotally, I spent a week working at the Department for Education alongside some talented teachers who put my limited credentials to shame; what was more worrying, though, was that amongst this pool of the best and brightest Teach First had to offer, I was the only one teaching north of Birmingham, and one of two teaching north of London. In policy debates at the likes of Teach First’s Impact Conference, around Whitehall tables and amongst civil servants, northern voices, accents, and experiences are few and far between.

Perhaps if MATs take their best up north, there might well be an educational “northern powerhouse” – and an easy victory for MATs, civil servants, and the government.