Ofsted’s annual report for 2014/15 highlighted an educational gap, not only between primary and secondary, but also between the north and south of England. Duncan Sim offers some concrete proposals to address the discrepancies in both funding and attainment.
The north-south divide starts young. This is, at any rate, what the statistics about the relative performance of secondary schools in the north of the country versus in the south seem to indicate.
Outgoing Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has previously raised concerns about the gap between the north and south of England in the number of pupils attending good or outstanding secondary schools. ResPublica’s own analysis of government data has found that a projected 58% of pupils in northern cities will fail to achieve five good GCSEs by 2030, 13 percentage points higher than schools in London.
Poor-quality education provision is a waste of young talent on an industrial scale
As detrimental as poor quality education provision may be to the much-needed northern economic revival, it also represents a waste of young talent on an industrial scale. Good schooling is a vital first step towards creating a highly skilled workforce, which will not only drive the northern economy for decades to come but also hand young people better life chances and open opportunities for rewarding employment for individual young people.
It was therefore encouraging to hear Theresa May reference educational inequality as one of the many injustices she identified in her first speech as Prime Minister on Wednesday evening. Both the underperformance of white working class boys in university admissions and the helping hand into the top professions provided by a private education were issues she insisted must be addressed in the fight “to make Britain a country that works for everyone”.
If these and other inequalities within our education system can be addressed, the north of England could stand to be among the primary beneficiaries. To do so will however require a multifaceted approach, focusing on improving individual pupil attainment in the short-term, but also the role which schools can play in addressing local disadvantage more broadly and over a longer timeframe.
There is an important question of resource here. Secondary schools across the north receive on average £1,300 less per pupil than those in London, an extraordinary shortfall. Ultimately of course however, money is only a means to allow schools to put in place other solutions, rather than a solution in itself. Research evidence tells us that the most effective interventions to raise schools’ performance in the short-term are in-classroom improvements – in other words, encouraging widespread excellence in teaching.
Northern schools should offer a ‘northern premium’ package to prospective teachers
Attracting and retaining talented individuals within the teaching profession is a nationwide problem. Yet evidence suggests that it is a particularly acute issue within deprived areas, many of which are located in the north. To combat this trend, northern schools should offer a ‘northern premium’ package to prospective teachers, with benefits to attract high quality educators to where their skills are most needed and tackle the widening north-south education gap.
Northern city regions should formulate institutional region-wide programmes which open these benefits to applicable teachers. Such programmes could encompass a wide range of incentives; broadly however, there should be a focus on financial or in-kind benefits and the potential for accelerated professional advancement.
For example, teachers could be given a helping hand onto the local housing ladder within a commutable distance of their school via a local authority-funded subsidy. Local authorities could top up local teachers’ salaries to offer financial advantages similar to London weighting, or make direct contributions towards paying off teachers’ student debt. PhD students at local universities could be offered bursaries in return for teaching a reduced timetable in their specialist subject.
Moving beyond the financial, the work of Teach First in recruiting graduates to teaching should be complemented by offering a similar ‘Teach Later’ programme of accelerated qualification and professional development for those aged 40 or more who are changing career or returning to the north having moved south when younger.
Such a move would by no means represent a panacea. It would have to be combined with a focus on retaining graduates from local universities in the area, and well-targeted national and devolved skills and apprenticeships policies, if a viable and credible offer to the north’s young people to realise their talent and life chances locally, for the wider benefit of the northern economy, is to become a reality.
But improved secondary education, via a focus on attracting and retaining the best educators in the country, is an important first step towards creating the talented and entrepreneurial northern workforce that can close the north-south socioeconomic divide. It is imperative that children in northern schools have access to the standard of education provision that will allow them greater access to the opportunities arising from future growth through the wider northern powerhouse agenda.
Duncan Sim is a Senior Policy Officer at ResPublica