Talk is cheap when it comes to the Northern Powerhouse, and platitudes are plenty. The thorough and detailed report from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership is a stark and timely reminder that frustrated life chances are at the heart of what drives the productivity and inequality gap between regions.
In early years, schools and skills, we’ve seen cuts and centralisation hobbling local areas’ ability to tackle the deep root causes of disadvantage. That’s why I welcome the comprehensive report from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, and the change in direction it represents.
Whilst the overall headline trends in this report make sober reading, there are fantastic pockets of excellence across the North, where education leaders at all levels are making huge progress in challenging circumstances to achieve excellent results. Yet at almost every age and stage of life, the North lags behind London particularly.
As the IPPR North has shown, the development gap between poorer children and their better off peers pre-school in the North is almost twice as large as it is in London. The biggest factor in how well a child does at GCSE is the developmental progress that child has made by the age of five. That’s why the early years is such a crucial policy area, and why the strong focus of this report on more investment and reform of support services in the early years is right. Success in the early years is crucial to transforming life chances through the rest of a child’s education journey and beyond.
As the Greater Manchester Reform Board meets today to discuss Early years, I’m delighted that Mayor Andy Burnham has asked me to lead on transforming School Readiness in Greater Manchester. Our ambition is to do for the early years in Greater Manchester, what the London Challenge did for secondary education in the capital. We are already reaping dividends and we will continue to apply innovative approaches, leadership and collaboration to ensuring all children, regardless of birth or background, have access to excellent services and support that can tackle problems early and set them on the best path for the future. This is an exciting agenda which, with a small bit of government support, could be an exemplar for other places to follow.
While we understand the key ingredients of success, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution and we should have learnt over many years of trying that real change and transformation comes from placed-based strategies which bring together all the players with communities themselves. In other words devolution. When it comes to education, though, I’m afraid we’ve seen an opposite direction of travel with schools and post-16 provision increasingly run (often with little oversight) by the DfE and new provision popping up with little understanding of local demand. I’m pleased to hear George Osborne - the author of the defunct forced academisation plan - now have a change of heart about where decisions need to be made.
With Brexit negotiations snarling up the government machinery, wise Ministers would do well to grasp this opportunity of metro-mayors and local areas doing their heavy lifting for them.
Resources need levelling up too. Early years and schools spending is higher in the South than the North, skills budgets too are skewed to more prosperous areas, and the apprenticeship levy will be concentrated in the South East.
The route to higher productivity and a country which works for everyone starts in the North. There is a job of work for everyone to make this happen. Whilst Northern leaders are coming together to tackle the root causes of disadvantage and low productivity in our communities, we must now see a renewed commitment from the new Cabinet and Ministerial teams to put their money and motives where their mouth is and make this happen.
This isn’t rocket-science. We know what works. Despite some of the gloom painted in today’s report, the North is full of resilient and brilliant people, and is showing real signs of becoming that powerhouse of ideas, innovation and knowledge we know we can be. So, please, free us up, let us fulfil our ambition by giving us the support, powers and resources we need.
Lucy Powell MP is the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Manchester Central, the Chair of the Greater Manchester APPG, and leads for Mayor Andy Burnham on improving School Readiness in Greater Manchester