An open letter to the Conservative leadership candidates

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Make fixing the north-south education divide an economic priority

We are writing to you on behalf of our organisations representing school leaders, educational innovators and northern business and civic leaders to share our deep concerns about the widening north-south divide in education, and the lasting impact this has on our economy and our ability to bring opportunity to young people from all backgrounds.

Last week young people across the country at schools and colleges received their results for A-Levels, BTECs and, for the first time, T-Levels. They have had to overcome huge challenges over the past couple of years and it looks like the issue of regional disparities in attainment is getting worse, not better. Nowhere is the impact of this starker than in the North East. The gap between the North East and South East (the highest performing region in 2019 and 2022) at A-Level has widened from 5.3% to 8.7%. The region saw the smallest number of students achieving A* and A grades in the country, with a total of 30.8% achieving those grades, compared with 39.5% in the South East. Children here are just as bright, just as talented and have just as much to offer – so what is going wrong and what can we do to fix it?

Research shows that the intersection between long-term deprivation and certain ethnic groups, including White and Black Caribbean, is the strongest predictor of low attainment. Analysis from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and FFT Education Datalab last year found that 10.1% of pupils in the North East were found to fall into these high-impact groups – double the national average. The North West was found to have the second highest proportion of these children, with 7.3%, followed by Yorkshire and the Humber with 6%. In contrast, just 2.8 per cent of pupils in Outer London were found to be long-term disadvantaged and also in the high impact group.

We also know that the impact of deep-seated disadvantage on education has been exacerbated by the disproportionate learning loss felt during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research from FFT Education Datalab highlighted that pupils in the North East missed 15.3% of lessons in academic year 2020/21 and the autumn term 2021/22, compared with 11.6% of lessons lost in London and 11.9% in the South East. Many children, especially those from less well-off backgrounds, were unable to learn at home effectively without the necessary equipment. This is the context, rather than any type of excuse. It is a false narrative that North East or wider northern schools and teachers are failing students. Too often in current measurements of school performance, economic and geographical factors are mistakenly presented as educational ones. This year’s results can be seen as a ‘map’ of the impact of the pandemic on students and schools.

The education investment areas introduced earlier this year will be run by diktat from Whitehall with no genuine local control – the crucial ingredient which made the Opportunity Area policy so successful in places like Blackpool and Bradford.

Henri Murison, Chris Zarraga and Fiona Spellman

There have also been more recent failures in the education recovery initiative, such as the poor delivery of the National Tutoring Programme (NTP). In March 2021, the NTP had only reached 58.8% of target schools in the North East, compared with 100% in the South West and 96.1% in the South East. The lack of pre-existing tutoring infrastructure, as well as challenges around recruitment and retention (exacerbated by the pandemic), has made it difficult for North East schools to engage with this scheme. More positively, this academic year saw the inclusion of school-led tutoring as part of the NTP, allowing schools to use their own staff. This has ensured greater flexibility, with 82.5% of schools in the North East in June 2022 participating in the NTP, above the national average, showing the time lost relying heavilly on existing and largely new for profit providers could have been avoided if the profession had been trusted in the first place. Despite the challenges with the NTP, the option of the school-led tutoring has highlighted the readiness of school staff to support students. Our schools are not the problem, and they need adequate resources to unlock the potential of their pupils.

This highlights the importance of using locally-led solutions to tackle education challenges. Education policy has taken a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach too often. The education investment areas introduced earlier this year will be run by diktat from Whitehall with no genuine local control – the crucial ingredient which made the Opportunity Area policy so successful in places like Blackpool and Bradford, despite the policy bypassing those places also in need of the equivalent funding and powers in the North East. We need real resources to address the contextual factors using evidence-based policy, with the right resources that are actually needed and where they are best targeted.

As children who left our primary schools plan to start secondary school in a couple of weeks it is time once and for all to get the transition right not just this year, but every year. As Opportunity North East sought to achieve, collaboration as evidenced by the work of The Legacy Learning Trust and the Bishop Chadwick and Bishop Hogarth Catholic Education Trust must be kept up.

The government’s own Levelling Up White Paper has set a target of increasing the percentage of children from the worst-performing areas meeting the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by over a third by 2030. This won’t happen unless we simultaneously address place-based challenges such as health and housing. Opportunity Area – at the most appropriate level of scale to focus on greatest challenges – could tackle issues in tandem, with far more effective results.

Your own former Cabinet colleague Michael Gove wrote in The Times over the weekend,

“Central to unlocking potential and improving productivity is further reform of our education system. Our biggest challenge remains the attainment gap between rich and poor. We will prosper only if children in poor neighbourhoods have the opportunities the successful enjoy.” He is absolutely right.

We need to make sure we are giving our young people the tools they need to go into skilled, well-paid jobs, especially in future-proofed sectors such as the net zero transition and the areas of manufacturing and beyond subject to the fourth industrial revolution. They are our country’s future scientists, NHS staff, businesspeople, educationalists – the UK economy cannot prosper unless we help them fulfil their potential.

Yours faithfully,

Henri Murison
Chief Executive, Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Chris Zarraga
Director, Schools North East

Fiona Spellman