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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

The Northern Challenge?

Earlier this month the former Chancellor, George Osborne, spoke to the Education Select Committee alongside two of his colleagues, Henri Murison and Lord Jim O’Neill, from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP). The starting point for the conversation was the NPP’s recent report (published in February) on education in the North of England, and the theme was a familiar one; why do school outcomes in the north lag those in London, and what can be done to improve them?

George Osborne’s prescription for improvement in northern schools – a barrage of effort, attention, and reform – is a good one. It’s tried and tested, most notably in the London Challenge which employed innovative approaches to school leadership, the use of data to understand pupil journeys, continued professional development for teachers and other interventions. The trouble is, done properly it’s also expensive. Research on the London Challenge found that at its peak it was supported by investment of £40m annually, with ‘heavy’ investment in school leadership. And it sat alongside several complementary initiatives (such as improvements to school premises) which were also well-funded. Northern schools would be justified in pointing out that they could do a lot with the £50m – or even a chunk of it – that’s been promised recently for grammar schools.

Simply throwing money at a problem isn’t the solution, but solving this one will be difficult without sustained and strategic investment. Too many educational reforms could be described as partial and piecemeal, while educational challenges are complex and rarely confined just to education, or indeed to children. Addressing them needs an equally complex response, with deep-seated changes to school cultures and practice that take time, patience, and a lot of long-term, incremental, unshowy work. Beacons of success in the northern education landscape – and there are many, including the ones we identified in our report on Northern Schools – know all about this.

Those with an interest in better outcomes for children and young people in the north increasingly converge around some common points of agreement, which were echoed again in the select committee session. High-quality and readily accessible early years education, schools that are engaged with their communities and have strong local governance, and far more devolution of powers and budgets for adult skills are all common goals. And this makes strong intuitive sense – after all, learning (and, later on, working) are things that we tend to do in very particular places. The clue is rather in the title of the ‘London Challenge’, which was place-based in far more than name.

But education is a place where the logic of devolution too often slams hard into some ideological buffers.  Schools policy has generally moved in the opposite direction; even Regional Schools Commissioners have a relatively limited remit to bring stakeholders together locally. And the discussion of whether or not the North East should have its own designated ‘opportunity area’ is rather beside the point; what the North East and the wider North needs is systematic improvement across the board, plus sustained funding and support for schools that are currently doing well. Peer-led school improvement, in fact, was another feature of the London initiative, and the north has a wealth of expertise on how to do this – but sharing it demands new structures and more resources.

The NPP speakers were optimistic about getting government backing for their proposals. If it comes with funding, and more powers for schools and local areas to decide how it’s used, that will be good news for northern schools. It’s hard to see a path from current policy to greater devolution in education – but then again, who’d have foreseen an extra £50m for grammar schools?

Anna Round is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North. She tweets @annainnewcastle.