The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, warned last week that secondary schools in Liverpool and Manchester were “going into reverse”. Too many pupils in Northern towns and cities are simply not prepared for the next phase of their education, training or employment. In Liverpool, for example, four out of every ten schools are judged to be either inadequate or, in the bureaucratic jargon, “requiring improvement”, which basically means they are just not delivering the goods. The proportion of children securing five good GCSEs has fallen in many areas of the North.
All this is in sharp contrast to the dramatic turnaround in recent years in the performance of schools in London, whose results, particularly among poorer pupils, are now among the best in the country.
At the other end of the ability spectrum, the North falls short. The area from Cheshire and South Yorkshire up to the Scottish border has nearly 30 per cent of the total population of England and Wales. But in terms of A-level results, only 12 schools from this area make it into the national top 100 of state schools – leaving aside the massive domination of London and the South East in terms of private sector exam results.
This gloomy picture does not bode well for the future economic prospects of the region. Increasingly, growth is being determined not by physical investment but by the more intangible, but nevertheless real, concept of the stock of productive knowledge of an area. Not everyone can be a biochemist or work at the frontiers of artificial intelligence. But the ability to innovate and adapt to changed circumstances is required at all levels.
A visionary and challenging solution to the economic problems of the North is put forward in the unlikely setting of the academic journal Environment and Planning: Planning and Design. The author, Mike Batty, is an extremely distinguished professor in University College London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. I work with Batty, so maybe this colours my view of his ideas. But despite many billions of pounds of public money having been spent in conventional ways in recent decades in trying to close the North-South divide, the situation has only got worse.
A Liverpudlian himself, Batty is characteristically blunt about the likelihood of new infrastructure projects making an impact: “None of this is going to work. If it does, it would have done so years ago.” Instead, we need to break the vicious circle of cumulative causation, the forces which cause people from the North, especially the skilled and talented, to drift South. Not just in the UK, but across the West as a whole, many students in top universities stay on in the places where they studied.
The dominance of the London-Cambridge-Oxford golden triangle needs to be challenged. Instead of spending on HS2, the money should go to Northern universities to transform some of them into world class institutions. Mergers need to be forced through, and the poorly performing departments axed. It is a radical concept, but it might just work.