One year on from our landmark Northern Schools report with Teach First, IPPR North's Anna Round surveys the region's educational landscape.

In the year since IPPR North’s Northern Schools was published, education has seldom been far from the headlines. Sir Nick Weller’s Northern Powerhouse Schools Strategy (November 2016) set out proposals to improve the region’s schools and bring outcomes into line with those in the south. The Department for Education opened its consultation on a new Schools Funding Formula in December; a second consultation, in March, invited feedback on methods to refine the analysis of relationships between family circumstances and educational attainment. And education is a key battleground in the general election, with all the manifestos including proposals for how to fund and organise schools.

Common concerns run through all of this work. The ‘disadvantage gap’ is not addressed in detail (and ‘social mobility’ is barely mentioned) but there is agreement that the government has a duty to provide all children with access to good quality education, regardless of their family background. Less consensual are proposals for schools funding. The formula proposed last year updates the framework and removes historical imbalances between local authority, but rather than ‘levelling up’ involves cuts in some regions.

Combined with inflationary pressures and other changes, this puts a serious squeeze on school budgets. Analysis by the Education Policy Institute suggests despite overall increases in education spending, per-pupil funding is at risk; by 2019/2020 for most if not all schools will have less money per pupil in real terms, with up to half of primaries and around half of secondaries losing between six and eleven per cent of funding for each child they teach. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the cut per pupil across the UK may be around 6.5 per cent by the same year. Widespread alarm at such projections is reflected in the commitments made by all the main parties.

More money alone is doesn’t guarantee improved standards, but used wisely it opens up options for innovative responses to general and local challenges. In Northern Schools we recommended a ‘Powerhouse Premium’ for northern schools, some of which could be used to attract excellent teachers to the region, and especially to its most challenging schools; Sir Nick Weller recommends a dedicated ‘Teach North’. But this is an issue right across the UK, and improved financial conditions and rationalised workloads for teachers are a common theme of the manifestos.

Retaining and retraining expert teachers is just as important as recruiting them in the first place. Discussions of school improvement over the past year have been dominated by the role of structural changes, most controversially the extension of selective admissions policies and the creation of more ‘free schools’. Yet last year’s Pisa review found that ‘the most ambitious education reforms aspire to change what happens inside the classroom’, with teachers’ professional practice and qualifications having a greater impact than material or human resources.

Frameworks and funding for teachers’ continuing professional development are vital ingredients of school improvement. Teachers also need frameworks and opportunities to share good practice about how best to shape practice for children in their school and their local area. In our interviews with schools where the ‘disadvantage gap’ is narrowing and overall attainment is high, we found a strong commitment to creating cultures where teachers continue to learn and to share their learning. It’s good that this is recognised in all the manifestos and – with a strong focus on regional challenges – Sir Nick Weller’s review.

The ‘deprivation gap’, as noted in Northern Schools, opens up in the earliest years of life and has an ongoing, profound impact throughout the school career and beyond. There is now widespread recognition that investment in good quality early years provision is essential in tackling inequalities; otherwise schools (and other public services) just have too big a mountain to climb. This strong focus both on funding and on effective approaches is very welcome. The next government must take a critical look at the relationship between childcare and early years education, learning from the best UK and international evidence about what makes a difference to school outcomes, and to health, life and work long after people have left school.

Anna Round is a senior research fellow at IPPR North