UK’s top academy trusts would refuse to go to ‘risky’ north, says leading economist

Lord Jim O’Neill, vice chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) and former commercial secretary to the Treasury, says that the highest-performing multi-academy trusts (MATs) would reject taking on schools in the 55 education investment areas identified by the levelling up paper because the areas are too risky.

The comments were made at the Houses of Parliament, during an event on levelling up presented by the Education Policy Institute and Teach First.

“Some of the best MATs would not dream of going anywhere in the North, because it’s too hot,” said O’Neill.

Comparing the situation to that facing venture capital, he added: “It’s a bit like venture capital – people that invest go into venture capital, where you might risk losing all your money.”

North-south divide in English schools

Lord O’Neill said that just three of the 30 local authorities with the smallest disadvantage gaps were located outside London.

When pressed about government targets for all schools to become academies by 2030, set out in the schools white paper, the vice-chair of the NPP said the full academisation target was a “magical bullet” for educational disadvantage.

“The education White Paper and the education Bill that is coming along with levelling up, in my judgment, speaking really candidly … it is really backing a big horse of which so far there remains pretty limited evidence as to whether the academies movement is some magical bullet that’s a gamechanger,” he said.

“In the most tricky parts of this country, I don’t think whether a school is part of an academies chain is going to be neither here nor there.”

Citing areas like Northumberland and the North East, where, people live in quiet “remote, removed places” with limited transport links, O’Neill said it was not “worthy” to use phrases like levelling up to apply such as ‘centralised approach.”

At the same event, Farihah Alam, a deputy headteacher of Buile Hill Academy in Salford, quoted a letter from a 10-year-old pupil, which read:

“Kids from the north are far more disadvantaged than kids from the south in my opinion. In the south, people are given a lot more support for the problems they face.

“I think kids in London have it easier because they get more help. They don’t have to pay for their own bus tickets, even though we do, and we have to pay for trips now because our schools don’t have enough money.”

Educational divide highlighted time and time again

The divide in education has been highlighted time and time again. Reports shows that children in the north of England have less chance of educational success than children in the south and the north-south divide in schools is a ‘fundamental inequality’ that needs to be addressed with serious investment.

Even pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the south are more likely to leave school with five GCSEs passes compared to pupils in the north.

In 2018, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership suggested that improving schools in the north of England should be “at the top of the in-tray” of the then education secretary Damian Hinds.

Research conducted by Professor Stephen Gorard at the University of Durham makes sobering reading on realities in the attainment gap between children in the north and the south.

The research concludes that there is a prevalent narrative in education which contrasts the successes of London schools with the failures of schools in other regions. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds in London are found to be outperforming their peers from other parts of the country. The significant improvement in education outcomes in London over the last few decades have not been matched by the same level of improvement elsewhere.

“It may be that the schools in places like the North of England actually need more support than blame,” writes Fiona Spellman, chief executive at Shine Trust in an analysis of the north/south education attainment divide report.

Assault on local government is part of the problem

Dr. Andy Pickard, who taught at Manchester Metropolitan University for 42 years, and was head of Education Studies from 1992 until his retirement in 2013, says that part of the problem in the educational divide is that 40 years of assault on local government has particularly affected the north.

Speaking of the history of academy schools in Britain, Dr. Pickard told LFF: “Academies were the outcome of the dying days of the Thatcher government and were really an attempt to bring back grammar schools by sleight of hand. The Blair government expanded their number because they saw it as a way of identifying ‘good schools’ and giving them a leading role and additional resources in raising standards in non-academy schools.

“Gove in 2010 declared all schools would be academies because he shared the long-standing Tory antipathy to local educational authorities whose simple removal would be sufficient to raise standards. And if educational success is measured purely by examination outcomes, then there is evidence that academies that are very focussed on exams and more importantly, can select their intake, can produce better exam passes year on year. However, as with the old grammar schools, it produces a very narrow version of education which plenty of kids simply don’t buy into.

“O’Neill is broadly right but it is a shame that he did not go further. Education is probably the only sphere of human activity which is still trying to get a nineteenth century model to work by fiddling about with various mechanisms.

“Academies are just the latest bit of fiddling.”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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UK’s top academy trusts would refuse to go to ‘risky’ north, says leading economist