Amid the preparations for the festive period, I wanted to take opportunity to pause and reflect on 2019, what we have achieved, what we have learned and what this means as we stand on the brink of 2020.
Looking around me at the education landscape in the North, it is clear we have much work to do.
2019 saw the release of several reports which underlined again the vast regional differences in education outcomes across our divided country. This year, thanks to a ground-breaking report by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and Bristol University, we finally began to move beyond the simplistic narrative of the North-South divide and towards a much more nuanced, and accurate, picture of what’s really going on.
As academics like Professor Stephen Gorard have been arguing for some time, the truth is, schools in the North of England aren’t producing worse outcomes than their counterparts in London because they are less effective – they are in fact serving children and communities which face greater need.
When we label many schools in these circumstances as ‘failing’ we actually make the situation worse in areas where it is often already very difficult to recruit and retain the best teachers.
So, if school effectiveness isn’t the issue, what is?
After more than a decade working in and around the education system, I am increasingly persuaded that we need to do much more to support learning outside of school, in particular, by building more proactive, supportive links with parents and families.
As I reflect on our progress to date, I see huge opportunities for us to ensure that SHINE’s work can make a tangible impact beyond the remit of programmes we are helping to fund.
It is no coincidence that the parts of our country that have been the least educationally successful are also the areas that have been the least economically successful over the last few decades. Issues of long-term unemployment, poverty and a low adult skills profile, drastically alter the overall contexts in which children are educated, and we can’t hope to offset these barriers while denying they exist. Holding high expectations for all is, in principle, a good thing, but real equity isn’t about insisting everyone is the same. It’s about recognising the different access points people have, and wherever possible, providing reasonable adjustments to reflect the enormous impact of circumstances on all of our lives.
Rather than engaging in a false narrative on school effectiveness, we should instead be empowering our schools as assets in their communities, forging links with parents and making clear that the learning environment outside of school is just as important at what happens from 9am-3pm. The truth is, schools in our most disadvantaged areas are often woefully under resourced to tackle the full needs of the children in their care. It takes a village to raise a child and we all have a duty to strive towards greater fairness.
Reflecting on my own experience at SHINE, when we first moved to the North, we set a goal to invest at least £1 million per year into education programmes across the region. This was based on the assumption that it might take us some time to find fundable programmes in the North, and that we needed to learn more about our new context before deciding on SHINE’s objectives in the longer term.
Since the move in August 2017, SHINE has committed more than £3.5 million to education practice across the region, from small grants to individual teachers to large-scale partnerships reaching many thousands of children.
Contrary to the common narrative about educational practice in the North, we have found a huge volume of highly investible work, and this has led us to a bigger ambition.
SHINE wants to use its grants to drive improved education outcomes across the Northern Powerhouse. As part of this, we have pledged to catalyse at least £25 million into education programmes in the North by 2025.
So far, and thanks to the incredible team at SHINE, I’m immensely proud to say that we’re on track to meet this ambitious goal. As I reflect on our progress to date, I see huge opportunities for us to ensure that SHINE’s work can make a tangible impact beyond the remit of programmes we are helping to fund.
Together with our partners across the region, we are determined to be part of driving a bigger change for the education of our most disadvantaged children.