Omicron, the new Covid variant, has had an unexpected victim: the long-awaited White Paper on levelling up. Boris Johnson’s plans to put his 2019 election pledge into reality will not be published until New Year, to give the government more time to focus on containing Covid.
The document, set to span industry, skills and transport, is crucial. Michael Gove, at the helm of the new department on Levelling up and Housing, has a vast challenge ahead.
Gove cannot reasonably be expected to take on briefs from other departments. But there is another major issue which needs to be addressed in order to achieve any form of equality of opportunity across the country.
Quite simply, the performance of secondary schools above the line from Bristol to the Wash in the East Midlands is just not good enough.
In recent rankings for secondary state schools, 17 out of the top 20 were in London and the South East.
The North West has a decent representation, with eight schools in the top 100. Though, this is remarkably less than the proportion of the total population which lives in the region. No fewer than five of these are located in the very prosperous South West of Greater Manchester, an area which would not look out of place in Surrey.
The West Midlands region has only four state schools in the top 100 – double that of Yorkshire. Neither the East Midlands or the North East had any schools break through to the top of the league.
In the independent sector, the concentration of the best performers in London and the South East is even more marked. Manchester again has its own cluster, with schools such as Manchester Grammar and Withington Girls. But elsewhere, high performing schools are scarce.
Of course, there are different ways of ranking schools, just as with universities. But any ranking which is mainly based on exam results will paint a very similar picture.
This depressing story is hardly news. Six years ago, for example, the then-head of Ofsted warned that too many pupils in Northern towns and cities were simply not prepared for the next phase of their education, training or employment.
It is no coincidence that where there is a cluster of very good state schools, in places like South Manchester and North Cheshire, there are also a number of excellent private schools. In fact, a major cross-national study, published by American Economic Association, found that “competition from privately operated schools positively affects achievement levels”.
While this is true, it is hardly a policy that can be replicated across the UK.
Simply throwing more money at it is not a solution either. The same article showed that pure expenditure per student had limited effect on student achievement.
The problem is a social one, with students unable to dream to do more.
There are already schemes in place which reward bright graduates who are willing to teach specific subjects, principally science and maths. But sprinkling resources across schools does not seem to achieve very much.
This needs to be targeted. There needs to be greater incentives to dynamic young teachers, willing to commit to working in left-behind areas for at least several years. The teaching unions might moan, but drastic action is needed to address the poor performance of our schools in the UK.