Time for a Northern Challenge


Category: devoComment, The North

Baroness Estelle Morris, Former Education and Skills Secretary 

It is difficult to overstate the importance of a good quality education for every child. It matters for individuals, families, communities as well as our national prosperity. We have undoubtedly made progress in recent years but we are still held back by the ever growing attainment gaps – between the rich and the poor, boys and girls, different ethnic groups and between the North and the South. There is also a performance gap within the North.

We have a great deal of good practice but there are schools in very similar circumstances in the region which achieve very different results. Learning from each other and spreading success must be part of what we do.

The statistics show that we still waste talent and too many children fail to realise their ambitions. Unless we solve this problem, the north cannot flourish. That means that creating an education system that delivers the excellence we need must be central to everything we do.

The underperformance of education and skills in the north is a bigger brake on productivity than connectivity but high speed trains – whether to the north or across it – have a habit of getting more column inches in the media. That is why the reports published this month by both the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and IPPR North are so important. They are to be discussed at a major conference this Friday which brings together the right people if we are to meet the challenges that we face.

It is becoming clear that there is a distinct northern agenda and indeed, Brexit means the north will need to be more self reliant in the future, capable of developing within its population the skills its economy will require after 2019.

Thankfully leadership is visible – in local authorities many of whom endeavour to deliver learning improvement despite very difficult financial circumstances; and amongst the new generation of Metro Mayors, some of whom are calling for Regional Schools Commissioners to be accountable to them. Of course on skills there is also a push for the devolution to Mayors not just of adult skills budgets but responsibility for shaping apprenticeship provision. And early years is starting to get the attention it deserves.

As Secretary of State, I launched the London Challenge over fifteen years ago. It is now recognised as being a catalyst in the transformation of secondary schools in the capital many of which at that time were being written off as beyond help. It is clear the north needs a similar level of ambition, investment and attention. I look forward to a clear set of propositions emerging from the Conference that all members of the Northern Powerhouse APPG – MPs, Peers, Mayors and Council leaders as well as those from the private and third sectors – can get behind and support so greater investment can be secured to complement greater ambition.

Hopefully this conference will be a springboard to help us all to do just that.

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