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Children in art class at school

It’s now two years since I published my report ‘Growing Up North’. It showed how many children in the North are doing well at school and have good life chances – as good as many children in the South – but also how a sizeable number of children in the North don’t have the same opportunities to thrive.

It also highlighted how London’s education system has had rocket-boosters under it for nearly two decades, while some schools in the North are still fighting for scraps.

This won’t come as a shock to many of us who live in the North.

Are we really surprised that a child receiving free school meals in Hackney is three times more likely to go to university than a similar child in Hartlepool? Or that there are parts of the North where you’d struggle to find anywhere that actually teaches A-levels?

For decades, our education system has been beset with inequalities based on income, race and region. The same issues that have held back many parts of the North economically continue to hold our children back.

Additional research we published last year showed there are thousands of children leaving school in our regions without the most basic qualifications. For example, last year in Yorkshire and the Humber, 11,000 children left the education system at 19, after 14 years of full-time education, without 5 GCSEs or the technical equivalents, of these, 30% were children eligible for Free School Meals.

These are shocking numbers and they are repeated in many other parts of the North.

Of the top 10 areas in the country where children leave without even the most basic level of qualifications, four are in the Northern Powerhouse region – Doncaster, Wakefield, Leeds and Knowsley.

Last year’s General Election saw a dramatic change in the political landscape of the North. The question for me as Children’s Commissioner is whether this shift will translate into improved prospects and life chances for children growing up in Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester and the hundreds of towns and villages in Northern England.

The Government has promised extra billions of infrastructure spending, including in the North. That is welcome of course – but building new buildings, roads and rail lines only gets you so far. I want to see extra billions spent on tearing down the barriers that have held back too many Northern children;

Last year, I met a young boy from the North East who told me he didn’t know any adult who had a full time job. Not surprisingly, his own aspirations were low.

These challenges are all tough enough already, and when we factor in the consequences of the Covid crisis, they are tougher still. The fact is that the impact of the coronavirus lockdown, and children being kept out of school for such a long time, is likely to worsen the prospects of the most disadvantaged children, including many children growing up in the North. In Yorkshire alone, more than 800,000 children a week would normally be at school or nursery. 450,000 children in Yorkshire alone are likely to have spent more than six months out of the classroom.

Boy doing school work

The temporary closures of school was absolutely necessary to stop the spread of Covid-19. We now need to face up to the huge cost many children have borne by being out of school and repay the sacrifice made by our children during our lockdown. If we don’t, we will have a generation of children whose prospects are at real risk of being lost because of the education they haven’t received.

Certainly many schools and teachers have been delivering enormous support and going above and beyond the call of duty to support the most vulnerable children. But one survey in April found that for schools in the most deprived areas, 90% of teachers believed their pupils to be doing less than 2 hours learning a day. This has been confirmed by three further studies. Many of these areas will be in the North.

There are also the lost benefits children gain just from being in school – the social and emotional benefits, and structure. The ability to think confidently and creatively and communicate your ideas clearly. I am deeply concerned that some children in our region will regress in these basic skills while not at school.

We already know that 40% of the existing disadvantage gap is caused by the summer holidays. Children in families without the time, resources, space or knowledge to support home learning were already disadvantaged, and many have been dealt a hammer blow by Covid-19.

We also know there are many more of these families in the North and that is why keeping children out of school is going to hit many of the region’s most disadvantaged kids hard.

I am pleased the Government has committed to getting all children back into school by September. It would be a national disaster if this doesn’t happen. It is worrying though that many parents still seem unconvinced and I want to see the Government doing much more to persuade parents that their children will be safe. Getting children back into school is just the basics.

We need to see a relentless spotlight on those areas in the North where we know children were already behind, and where they may have fallen even further behind over recent months. I joined the Northern Powerhouse team in pushing for a catch up premium for the children who need it most. The billion pounds the Government is giving to schools is hugely welcome – but it must now be targeted at those areas where the need is greatest.

Let’s give them the same rocket-boosters that London schools had in the 2000s. That billion was just for catch up. Just to stand still, which as we know wasn’t good enough for thousands of children in the North to begin with.

So once children are back in school, let’s not forget what the priorities need to be if we’re to close the educational divide between some parts of the North and parts of the South.

That means the schools in the North who are not providing the best education are given the extra resources they need to turn themselves around – help with recruitment so that top teachers are attracted to work in Northern towns, extra tutoring for those kids falling behind from a young age and help for parents struggling to provide the support their children need to do well at school.

Closing the North-South divide also has to mean closing the attainment gap between the richest parts of the country and the poorest Northern regions. No child in a mainstream school should be leaving with next to no qualifications after fifteen years of education.

So let’s invest in early years support – end the postcode lottery for services like speech and language therapy, so vital for the many children in the North who aren’t ‘school ready’ when they go into reception, identify children with Special Educational Needs early and properly fund their education.

Our work

When children leave school there has be to something good to go on to. We need quality careers advice that provides a proper pathway to good jobs, apprenticeships or university, and more done to attract big firms to invest in those areas where too many jobs are poorly paid and short term.

We need to raise our ambitions. If we are going to have a revolution in electric cars, why can’t it happen in the North? If we are training up thousands of new NHS workers, why not do it in parts of the country where opportunities are scare?

Every child growing up in the North deserves the same chances as child in London or the South East. Spending billions on infrastructure schemes that create jobs for a few years and then returning to normal just won’t be enough. We need systemic, long term change that gives every child growing up in the North a chance to do well. As we emerge from the Coronavirus crisis, that task if harder than it was six months ago. It will take sizeable investment, but most of all political will.

This blog post was originally given as a speech to the Northern Powerhouse Education, Employment and Skills Summit by Anne Longfield on 15th July 2020.

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