Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Shotley Bridge Primary School, Co. Durham
Looking at the constituency diary during the run up to Parliament Week, Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday is always poignant. It involves school visits, talking about our democracy, and getting young people interested in the decision-making process in their country.
It also requires wreath-laying and church services to remember the sacrifice of those who fought and died to protect those freedoms that we all too often take for granted. The juxtaposition of these two times of year is very moving, especially after the recent death of Sir David Amess.
Being in local schools last week and next week during recess really brought home just how important the Government’s flagship ‘levelling up’ is on the doorstep in my North West Durham constituency.
It’s about opportunity for those children in their red jumpers and grey shorts, trousers or pleated skirts. Like their parents, some are loud and opinionated; most are a bit shyer and up for hearing more, while some just want to listen and weigh things up in their own time.
Yes, levelling up means physical infrastructure, trainlines, high streets, bypasses. But for it to be fully impactful and sustainable, we must also address the core inequalities which have led to communities, especially in the North of England and the Midlands, sometimes feeling overlooked and left behind. Improving education for the most disadvantaged is key to this.
The pandemic has impacted the future prospects of all our young people. And, unfortunately, those from poorer areas have suffered the most – and many of them were already behind before the pandemic hit.
Nationally in 2019, just 45 per cent of disadvantaged pupils achieved a standard pass in GCSE English and maths, compared with 72 per cent of non-disadvantaged pupils: a stark attainment gap. Having the School Standards Minister, Robin Walker, visit a few weeks ago to talk about the tutoring programme in our local schools was important to the communities in my seat.
But nothing can fully fill the gap that missing out on 18 months of education will leave. The effects of this slow start will for many last a lifetime, widening social inequality. The relationship between boosting skills in a region and the impact that will have on the local economy and crucially productivity, is obvious.
At a local level, a high-skilled workforce will ultimately lead to more jobs – and savings will be realised through lower spending on health, benefit payments and criminal justice. Likewise, if you have a thriving business sector in your community, local children will be inspired to learn the skills needed to take advantage of the opportunities on offer.
It’s a virtuous circle. Investing in education is therefore not just a moral imperative, but a strong policy which can provide a clear measuring tool for the levelling up agenda.
So what should levelling-up education look like in practice? Fortunately, two opportunities are approaching in which the Government can begin to answer the question.
Firstly, the much-anticipated levelling up White Paper is due to be published imminently. The strategy promises to articulate how bold new policy interventions will improve opportunity and boost livelihoods across the country as we recover from the pandemic. It’s key that education is a major part of this strategy.
And not just adult education as part of package on devolution. We’ve got to see some bold action on Further Education and Higher Education to ensure that provision meets the need of local economies, ensuring that those institutions are real drivers of and are plugged into our local economies.
Secondly, while the spending review has proved important, as we look towards the next election in three years’ time we’ve got to ensure that more is done between now and then. A recent report by education charity, Teach First, showed how alongside an education recovery package, boosting overall funding for schools serving disadvantaged communities must be a priority.
These schools face tougher challenges than those found in more affluent areas, and have been hardest hit by the pandemic – so we need this additional support to help make sure that every child has the chance to reach their potential. Within the Education Department, this must be where we place those extra resources.
Looking further at the pupil premium might also be a sensible step. I really think that it’s worth looking at expanding provision in this area not only to those on the child protection register, since those pupils often have poor outcomes, but also to 16-18.
The reason that 16-18 is so important because it’s the last best chance for the most disadvantaged to get their vital GCSEs in Maths and English and Level Three (A-Level equivalent) qualifications. This is a point that the Chancellor is seized of and, from a recent visit to New College Durham and Harrogate Army Training Base, is something that I know can make a real difference.
A separate recent research paper by the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP) and my fellow colleagues in the Northern Research Group (NRG) also called on the Government to close the education attainment gap by expanding eligibility for the pupil premium. Like the Teach First report, it also called for increased teacher salaries in poorer neighbourhoods to help attract the best teachers to those schools. These are sensible recommendations which would help lift up communities that are most in need.
Underpinning our promise to build back better must be delivering an education system that is fair, resilient, and able to provide every child with the support they need to reach their – and every town and village to reach its – potential as we level up our country.