Transforming northern childhoods: an essay for the Fabian report ‘Growing Up in the 2020s’
The following essay from Anne Longfield appears in the Fabian Society report ‘Growing Up in the 2020s’
I am a northerner born and bred – and proud of it too. The small market town in West Yorkshire where I was brought up shaped so many aspects of my life: my relationships, experiences, opportunities and the way I see the world. The place I grew up made me appreciate the importance of a strong community and it provided me with a good local school where the teachers encouraged me to work hard, to think for myself and to be ambitious about what I could achieve.
Most people in the north still feel that same sense of pride in their community as I had then, and still do now. Sometimes it is tempting to assume everyone leaving school or university in the north secretly wants to move to London or the south. In fact, if you ask most northern children and young people where they see their futures, it is close to where they were brought up. The value they place on community is high and their ambitions are to build happy, healthy and prosperous lives close to family and friends. They want good family housing, good schools, nurseries and amenities, parks, transport and low crime rates. All of the things every parent would want for their child.
Sadly, though there are parts of the north that do not offer these good schools and opportunities. The most entrenched areas of disadvantage in the north have some of the worst schools and the least employment options. The result is the north-south economic divide we see today.
I want to change this so that all children, wherever they live, have the best life chances. By 2030, our ambition should be to close the education and funding gaps that currently exist between North and South. Children growing up in the North during the 2020s, including those living in the most disadvantaged areas, should be at a good school and should have the same choices when they leave as most of their peers in the South. The northern powerhouse and the city mayors provide an opportunity to narrow this divide and meet these ambitions, and I want them to take it. But will our new northern leaders bring about the change needed? Only if they put children at the heart of their plans.
In March 2018, I published the results of a year-long study called Growing Up North looking at the experiences of children growing up in and around the major urban areas of the north – Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Newcastle and Liverpool. I wanted to see whether devolution and regeneration is improving the lives of all children in the north, no matter where they live.
I toured the north of England to speak with young people about regeneration and their future hopes. Overwhelmingly, they were optimistic about where they lived and proud of their communities. They thought the new buildings looked good and they liked the events that were happening across their city. But would the changes make a difference to their lives? Many – especially girls – thought not. Yet they didn’t want to abandon the area for somewhere better. Most wanted to build lives in their local community, even many of those who planned to go to university first. This was their community and most wanted to stay a part of it – they just wanted it to offer the openings and opportunities they could see happening elsewhere.
The report made clear the difference that growing up in those disadvantaged areas of the north makes to your life and expectations. It revealed that while fewer than 5 per cent of London secondary school children are in schools rated less than good, in the north it is three times that. In the most deprived areas of the north, the most disadvantaged children are falling far behind their equivalents in the South, particularly those children growing up in London. northern children are less likely to do well in secondary school, more likely to go to a poor school and more likely to leave education early. High numbers of children across the north are dropping out of school, missing vital parts of their education and undermining their future prospects. We need to ask why a child from a low-income family in London is three times more likely to go to university than a similar child who grows up in Hartlepool.
The irony is that northern two to three-year olds are more likely than their London counterparts to attend nursery – but they are also less likely to reach the expected standard of development when starting school. Many more children in the north than nationally are beginning school with high levels of development issues, but fewer children are having special educational needs diagnosed before they start school. Some northern primary schools are better than even the best in London and the south-east, yet pupils fall well behind their southern peers over the course of secondary school.
The fact is that while many children in northern schools are thriving and doing as well as a any child growing up in London, those living in the most deprived parts of the north are being left behind. Too many are facing the double-whammy of entrenched deprivation and poor schools. And the schools themselves are usually facing very similar problems: weak leadership, poor governance and difficulties recruiting staff.
If this all sounds hopeless, it should not. There are many reasons to be optimistic about turning this situation around because we know that it has been done elsewhere before. Twenty years ago, London schools were the worst in the country. Yet now, children in London who fifteen years ago were behind many of their peers in the north in the early primary school years are far more likely to have excelled by the time they leave school. They have been through an education system transformed at every level. Our ambition should be for Northern children growing up in the 2020s to see the same transformations in their lives.
Today, a child who qualifies for free school meals in London is 30 per cent more likely to be at the ’expected standard’ by the end of reception than a child living in Leeds. They are making better progress at every stage of education and unless we act now, this gap will continue to rise. There is absolutely no reason, with the political will, leadership and resources, that London’s progress cannot be replicated in the parts of the north that most need it.
Certainly the creativity is there. I’ve visited so many great schools and local organisations in the north who are thinking big for kids – the infant school in Liverpool teaching Mandarin, the primary school in Hull running fantastic creative writing classes, the brilliant work being done at Everton Academy.
Citywide, the work Leeds Council has done to make Leeds a child-friendly city is having a positive impact. They are thinking about how regeneration, art and sport can improve children’s lives, alongside cross-area plans that assess children’s needs in order to reduce vulnerability. Working with families, they have children’s centres and provide exciting new facilities for families like pop up beaches and park activities. There are good links with business and great universities and colleges.
Alongside great schools, these are the things make an area a good place to grow up.
If we are to give all children the best start in life ten years from now we need to disrupt and eradicate some of the growing threats to childhood, like poor mental health, marginalisation and gangs, and we need to build positive communities and positive childhoods. That needs to start with putting children’s wellbeing at the heart of local decision-making – from the amenities and support available to the use of public spaces and planning. Too many children I spoke to as part of Growing Up North had nowhere other than the local McDonalds or KFC to go in the evenings and weekends. Arts and sport funding should be focused on giving access to those from disadvantaged backgrounds – building confidence, developing skills, raising ambitions – and even having fun.
We need to put a greater priority on children’s health and wellbeing from their earliest months of life through every stage of childhood to adulthood. Thousands of schools are now measuring children’s wellbeing alongside academic achievement and I would like to see this becoming the norm. Of course as parents we want our children to get the best grades and qualifications, but we also want them to be happy, confident, have great social skills and be prepared for their life ahead.
If we are to tackle disadvantage we also need to see local areas assessing where children are most vulnerable and putting plans in place to reduce vulnerability, including intensive work in schools and with families. That means serious investment in areas of entrenched disadvantage to bring services together to provide early intervention to support children through their childhood, including a new phase of Sure Starts and family hubs. A child-friendly approach, like the one pursued in Leeds, should be every northern city’s ambition. The good news for those balancing the books is that treating problems early is much more cost effective as it prevents high cost crises developing.
Improving the north’s secondary schools in the most deprived areas must therefore be a national priority. There has to be a renewed focus on teaching recruitment and leadership. Cities with big graduate populations should retain talent in the north – encouraging graduates to stay where they have studied and do more to attract the best teachers to areas that most need them. Every disadvantaged area should be brimming with apprenticeships, training or education until 18– linked into business and real jobs. I want to see the big successful local firms that are doing well in parts of the north getting in to schools from Year 9, 10, 11 onwards, building closer ties and encouraging children to think about working for them. And of course more head offices, specialist research centres and national centres of art, culture and sport should be incentivised to come north. Look at the difference MediaCityUK has made to those children in Manchester and Liverpool who had ambitions for a career in the media. We can do the same for every area of industry with bold, urgent and long term planning.
We have much to be optimistic about. As someone who lives in the north, I can feel a buzz of anticipation that this could be a period of real change for our towns and cities. But it will only happen if we look ahead to what our children need to make successful lives in their local communities and put them at the heart of the policy-making process. Every child in the north deserves to go to a good, well-funded school, with excellent teachers and help and support as they leave school to go into work, apprenticeships or higher education. They want the area in which they live to be ambitious for their futures and bring together those that can help make it happen.
Devolution has the potential to transform childhoods in the next 10 years. Northern children won’t forgive us if we don’t grasp this once in a lifetime opportunity and do it.