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Ed Cox: Funding inequality is leading to educational inequality

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Last month, George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership published a report called Educating the North. 

It rightly draws attention to education as a driver of a strong and sustainable north. Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development evidence on regional economic development places education as the highest priority for ‘intermediate regions’ like the north.

In starting with early years, the report rightly identifies the source of the northern challenge. Given the strong correlation between early education and outcomes later in life, any efforts to tackle educational inequality must start before children have reached school age.

It is also right to focus on disparity and disadvantage. The highlighted differences in educational attainment between children in deprived and prosperous areas – and differences between boys and girls too – represent challenges.

But such statistics also demonstrate the north should not accept the premise all its education is all bad (as Sir Michael Wilshaw seems to think) or that it needs lots of outside intervention (as the report’s title implies). A home-grown northern schools improvement board, to which the regional skills commissioners must account, is perhaps the report’s best suggestion.

But generally its recommendations are overly dependent on special initiatives and interventions. One might be forgiven for adopting this approach. After all, the London Challenge – a special initiative which at its peak received £40m per annum in special funding – is frequently cited as the model we must emulate.

But the capital’s success runs much deeper than the London Challenge. For many years now, most schools in the capital have received much more funding per pupil than their norther counterparts.

As the National Association of Head Teachers reported earlier this year, the new formula means per pupil funding in Barnsley is £4,729 compared with £7,840 in Hackney. And sure enough this works: London schools are seeing the highest rates of social mobility and a narrowing of attainment gaps.

Money is not everything but neither can we pretend that great teachers and school leaders are motivated by vocation alone. The argument for discrepancies in the funding formula is that schools in the capital must receive a London weighting if they are to attract and retain the best teachers.

If northern schools want to compete then something must be done to rebalance incentives. We have recommended a ‘Powerhouse Premium’ on a par with London weighting.

The Northern Powerhouse – like a good education – is a prize the nation can ill afford to go without.

But systemic problems require systemic solutions. This seems to be a lesson too few in Westminster are prepared to address.

Ed Cox, director, IPPR North

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