Election 2024

The next government must burst the Westminster bubble

North of Tyne demonstrates what’s possible when decision making is meaningfully devolved – and we need much more of it

North of Tyne demonstrates what’s possible when decision making is meaningfully devolved – and we need much more of it

20 Mar 2024, 5:00

Far too much policy-making takes place in a bubble. Often the Westminster bubble. What might seem like a good idea in theory can turn out to be terrible in practice. The Times Education Commission found the curriculum “too rigid and inflexible” and “takes little account of employers’ needs.”

We’ve done things differently in the North of Tyne. We started by asking the experts on the frontline. Head teachers, classroom teachers, special educational needs specialists, trade unions and others. We asked them what would help secure better outcomes for their kids. And we listened to their answers.

It’s funded from our core Investment Fund from the original devolution deal with government. This was a political choice – we could have spent it on infrastructure instead. We’ve spent £2 million so far.

Schools are in the driving seat – teachers choose what we fund. Some focus on early literacy, particularly where English is a second language for many pupils. Others focus on forest schools and outdoor learning.

We’re the first Combined Authority to fund a major oracy programme in 100 schools. Expressing yourself, engaging with others, listening and speaking is fundamental to being human. Kids need to be able to articulate their own thoughts and advocate for themselves just as much as adults do. We’re also funding a cultural capital project to provide our most disadvantaged children with experiences and opportunities to help them progress and achieve success.

Suspensions and exclusions in our schools continue to rise, and attendance rates are a very real challenge. So we’re working to support school leaders to evaluate and improve their inclusion policies.

Both main parties need to take local communities seriously

In the past academic year over 260 schools engaged in one or more of our projects.

And we’re offering all 365 schools in the North of Tyne the chance to undertake our Mental Health Award. Because we want better mental health and wellbeing for the whole school community.

It’s not just about what we do but how we do it. We fund teachers to peer review and support other schools. Often where there’s a contrast – affluent to deprived or urban to rural. Teachers tell us this is much better than the tick-box exercises they’re used to. Because it’s not going to appear in a published Ofsted report they get a challenge they wouldn’t otherwise get. Invaluable coaching from someone who understands.

One teacher I met who’d been through this said she’d “rediscovered her teaching mojo” as a result.

Could this approach be rolled out nationally? It could but it won’t. Education is such a party-political football and both main parties have a ‘Westminster centre knows best’ approach. Decrees from Whitehall will continue whoever is in Government. It needs independent thought to change this mindset. One reason I became an independent Mayor.

So why are we doing this? After all, other Metro Mayors and Combined Authorities don’t get involved in schools.

Well here’s my answer. I visited a school in one of our more deprived areas. What did the kids want to do when they left? They wanted to be pop stars and footballers. Absolutely fine to have that ambition – most kids have it at some point. But what about the ones who don’t make it? The teachers there told me very few of the kids knew an engineer or a pharmacist – they saw getting a regular shift at the local supermarket as an achievement.

Now there’s a long history behind that. The decimation of the industrial base – the shipyards and the mines being closed. And that’s fed through the generations. Many families have struggled with finding good jobs, some have struggled with addiction and violence too.

It’s not something you can turn around overnight. But it’s not something you can ignore either if you want to build a successful modern economy. Both main parties need to take local communities seriously. That means much less Westminster ‘command and control’, and much more support for the school and system leaders who serve those communities and understand their needs.

Without supported professionals, free to use their professional judgement, we will never have the capacity to treat children as individuals and allow them to fulfil their own, personal, potential. That, for me, is worth investing in. 

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