The Northern Challenge

The Key

As a northerner, it’s unusual to hear politicians talk about where I’m from. Usually if a senior member of the government mentions a northern city, it’s just to boost his pasty-eating credentials. Recently though, the Chancellor has been chatting a lot about the ‘northern powerhouse’, an attempt to combine northern cities into a world-dominating economic force.

So far, the most notable moves towards this have been rail improvements that ended up being delayed (much like most northern trains) and the appointment of a northern powerhouse minister who isn’t too sure where the north is.

The lacklustre effort is a shame, because the north could actually do with a bit more attention. George Osborne is right to talk about transport; the floors of Northern Rail trains manage to be unsettlingly wet even when it’s not raining. There are other concerns too. Council cuts hit the north hardest, northerners are more likely to die early and, worst of all, we have to constantly put up with southerners attempting to imitate our accents.

There also seems to be a north-south divide when it comes to education.

Ofsted’s 2013/14 annual report shows that in 2014, over half of secondary school pupils in 13 local authorities (LAs) attended a school that was rated ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’.

Of these 13 LAs, all but one were in the north of England.

In contrast, of six LAs where 100% of secondary school pupils attended a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school,  all but one were in London. In fact, if you look down the list of the top performing LAs, you won’t hit the north until LA number 18.

Zooming in a bit closer shows even more scary stats. According to the most recent Ofsted data, there are only two ‘outstanding’ schools in Blackpool, and both are special schools. This means that there are no ‘outstanding’ mainstream schools in the entire LA of Blackpool. In Doncaster, there are twice as many secondary schools rated ‘inadequate’ than there are ‘outstanding’ secondary schools.

Concerns about regional disparities aren’t new. Page 27 of Ofsted’s 2012/13 annual report highlighted the issue. However, it’s a concern that’s seemingly gone unaddressed. Page 21 of the latest annual report (linked to above) suggests that the problem could worsen due to a shortage of teachers. Despite the efforts of organisations like Teach First, regional disparities may become even starker as ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools “cherry-pick the best trainees“.

Past efforts to improve education in northern regions have sometimes been successful, but often short-lived and limited to specific areas. The City Challenge, an extension of the London Challenge, was launched in 2008, but only focused on Greater Manchester. An evaluation of the programme commissioned by the Department for Education found that it had a positive impact, even if it wasn’t as overwhelmingly successful as the London Challenge. For example, it says:

In Greater Manchester, attainment increased considerably in the weakest schools, and the reduction in schools below the floor target was more than the national reduction. Ofsted outcomes also improved.

According to the report, “a great many factors contributed to this improvement … However, the most plausible explanation for the greater improvement in the Challenge areas is that the City Challenge programme was responsible”. It also points out that Greater Manchester Challenge only ran for three years, whereas London Challenge lasted eight years in total.

City Challenge ended in 2011. Despite its successes, similar programmes haven’t been rolled out in LAs like Doncaster or towns like Blackpool; places where they’re arguably needed the most.

There has been the announcement of a £10 million “injection of expertise” for schools in the north east, but this is only available to academies and specific details about it are hard to find.

More needs to be done. There shouldn’t be an entire LA with no ‘outstanding’ mainstream schools, nor should there be LAs where less than half of children attend ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools. The concentration of these LAs in one area of the country suggests a regional disparity that desperately needs to be addressed in a much stronger way.


While awaiting a strong and effective initiative from the government to minimise regional disparities, members of The Key for School Leaders can see school improvement plans for schools rated ‘requires improvement’ and for schools in special measures.

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