Education In The North: Behind The Headlines
We take a look at the evidence provided to the House of Commons Education Select Committee on 'Educating The North'
This paper reflects on the evidence given by George Osborne, Lord O'Neill and Henri Murson from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership ("NPP") to the House of Commons Education Select Committee on 2nd May 2018.
Once the initial and important exchanges regarding the benefits of raising educational performance, first for children's lives and then for economic performance and industrial strategy, were covered, Robert Halfon (Committee Chair) enquired 'why there is so much social disadvantage in terms of education and aspiration in the north?'.
Responding, George Osborne referenced the 'dramatic improvement in the state of London schools' and considered that 'the north has not had that focus … [nor] … a collective effort from national and local Government, the private sector and the teaching profession', which is what the NPP is putting forward.
So what should that 'collective effort' look like?
Centre of excellence
Henri Murison, NPP Director, considered that 'we need a centre to look at what works in
transforming schools in disadvantaged areas, because some schools in the north are getting it right, and some of the best schools in the country for getting kids out of poverty and opening their aspirations up are in the north'. Inevitably, this would require the Department for Education ("DfE") to allocate the necessary funding but would create a centre of specialist expertise of the kind favoured by the DfE previously.
Standards and structures
Recognising that both standards and structures are important, Henri Murison went on to remark that 'a focus on education policy that has been predominantly from Whitehall has meant that no one has ever come to grips properly with the problems that face the north [which] is the reality of the Department being focussed in London'.
The solution to a system where education policy is driven from Whitehall was addressed throughout the rest of the Committee hearing and focussed on the need for devolution to enable decisions to be taken locally based on a close understanding of local need. Much was made of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority as a model for bringing together different agencies with 'local convening power' to combine and co-ordinate budgets and decision making to provide an integrated approach to addressing the pressing needs of a particular area.
Northern Powerhouse Education Board
However, the greater prize was the creation of a Northern Powerhouse Education Board – or the Northern Powerhouse Schools Improvement Board, as referred to in the NPP report – to sit above multi academy trusts, teaching schools and opportunity areas and, with devolved funding, co-ordinate what is happening in the education system including how schools are allocated among multi academy trusts (MATs") to best serve the area and intervening where problems with MATs arise.
Interestingly, the consensus was not that funding should be ring-fenced to improve outcomes in the north. George Osborne said that he was 'not a massive fan of ring-fencing'. The rest of the Committee appeared to agree. Instead, the view was that devolution would create the climate for funding to be co-ordinated and targeted.
On the topic of funding, there was also much said about the Pupil Premium, which it was recognised needs of reform. George Osborne said that 'it is people who are persistently on free school meals who perhaps need additional support [and that] one way of reforming the Pupil Premium would be that the longer a child had spent on free school meals, the higher the premium should be'. Michelle Donelan (Committee Member) also asked whether there is a need to look at how someone gets on the Pupil Premium in the first place and 'at some kind of auto-enrolment scheme?' given the 'stigma attached to parents self-nominating their children for free school meals'. George Osborne confirmed that this was not something NPP had explored but said this is 'a very good idea' and that NPP is 'happy to give more thought to it'.
Comprehensive Spending Review
As for the reforms required to implement the NPP report, George Osborne saw the next Comprehensive Spending Review as 'the place for some of these changes' and was 'hopeful that, particularly around Pupil Premium, we will see progress'.
The evidence given by George Osborne, Lord O'Neill and Henri Murson to the House of Commons Education Select Committee which goes beyond the immediate headlines raises the important need for devolution in decision making and policy so the education needs of the north are addressed. This chimes with the wider debate on devolution, not just in relation to education policy. However, while there is clear merit in a Northern Powerhouse Education Board to direct education policy and provision, the Department for Education must provide it with the functions and funding to have strategic oversight and direction over the schools and academies system in the north. This may even provide a blueprint for education devolution in other regions.
Whether this marks a return to a form of Local Education Authority, whether or not based on RSC boundaries, remains open.
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