Northern Powerhouse Partnership calls for £300m to close the North’s education gap

Osborne calls education "the greatest challenge we face in the North today"

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George Osborne returns to school today - not to take up a part-time job as a teacher, but to announce the findings of a new report by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership into the serious education and skills gap that divides the North of England from the rest of the country.

The report marks a change of emphasis for the NPP, which has previously put infrastructure - particularly transport, and specifically HS2 - at the top of the agenda for rebalancing the economy.

Prominent among the proposals in the new report is a request for an extra £300m in funding for disadvantaged areas across the North that would help improve access to education for young children. It identifies early-years education as the key point at which children in the North begin to fall behind educationally.

The results are then seen in secondary education. A quarter of secondary schools in the North are rated by Ofsted as inadequate - the regulator’s lowest rating - or requiring improvement, and Northern pupils are on average a grade behind their Southern counterparts by the time they reach GCSE level.

A recent Social Mobility Commission survey of the best and worst areas for disadvantaged pupils showed that pupils in London have dramatically better educational prospects. All of the top ten areas for performance against social mobility indicators were London boroughs. In the 32 best-performing areas just two Northern local authorities - South Tyneside and Craven in Yorkshire - made the list, at numbers 29 and 31.

Osborne’s introduction to the new report points to the dramatic improvement in London schools in recent decades. A report by the LSE in 2015 credited this “London effect” to the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority in 1990, which handed control of education to individual boroughs, and to improvements in primary education.

Adult education is also part of the report, which recommends that metro mayors be given control of adult education budgets and vocational education spending. Apprenticeships, too, are strongly promoted among the report’s 14 recommendations.

While Theresa May claimed last year that “record amounts of funding are going into education”, the number of pupils in the UK is rising, and the Conservative government froze spending per pupil in 2015. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated that this would amount to the biggest fall in per-pupil spending for 30 years, or an 8 per cent cut in real terms; the National Audit Office calculated that schools would have to cut three billion pounds by 2020.

Will Dunn edits the New Statesman's regular policy supplement, Spotlight.