Are we witnessing an educational ‘Northern Spring'?

If you look closely, it’s possible to identify the start of a renaissance in education in the North of England

Libby Nicholas

Call to raise standards in the North

There’s something afoot in the North. We hear time and again that northern schools are struggling to keep pace with the South: that we have a two-tier system based on geography; that it’s really tough.

The Commons Education Select Committee has got in on the act, too, writing just a few months ago to the education secretary, demanding that the “stark educational attainment gap between the North and other parts of England” be addressed. In their most recent report, Attainment 8 scores of northern pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were 1.3 points below the national average and a whopping 6.5 points behind their London peers.

In short, the received wisdom is that it’s grim up North.

And yet. Today’s key stage 2 results across Astrea (the multi-academy trust where I am CEO) suggest there are reasons to be optimistic about education in the North. Across our 18 primary schools, we saw a 12 per cent increase in results in reading, writing and maths. That’s four times the national average improvement rate.

And what’s more, this is the second year it’s happened. Over the two years since 2016, Astrea Academy Trust has seen an increase of 26 per cent in the number of children achieving the required standards. This means that today, for the very first time, more than half of our children (55 per cent) are now at the required standard.

Now, that is of course what we would expect. We took over schools that were failing. And if academies are to contribute anything, it has to be school improvement. Otherwise, what is the point?

Last year, prior to joining us, only 6 per cent of children in Atlas Academy in Doncaster achieved the required standard. This is truly shameful. As educators, we have to ask, how is that even possible? What was happening in school for all those hours for all of those days for only 6 per cent to achieve at that level? Surely none of us believe that only 6 per cent were capable? Today, Atlas secured 33 per cent. That is still a long way off where we want them to be, but it’s a heck of an improvement, and provides a springboard for further growth in the coming years.

At the other end of the scale, we have academies that are pushing the high seventies and even into the high eighties with their combined results – Greengate Lane in Sheffield and Highgate Primary and Gooseacre Primary in Rotherham are all places where if you believed the southern narrative, you would not expect a stellar set of results. And yet this is what is happening, and these are all schools well on their way to becoming "outstanding".

There are some very practical things we have done to help support this. For instance, our Ad Astra staff (an internal pool of expert teachers who embed best practice); our huge investment in professional development including subject knowledge; and the introduction of our bespoke assessment tools for all phases, which allows us to take a forensic approach to identifying pupils so they don’t fall behind.

Academies are driving change

But what else is driving this shift? Yes, it is academies. And as a MAT CEO, you’d expect me to say that. But it’s more than that. It’s an attitudinal shift – it’s a rock-solid belief that we can do better and we will do better. It’s an unashamed ambition and drive to level the playing field. We are typically only in deprived communities and we are predominantly in the North. Some would see that as a double whammy. We see that as the most brilliant opportunity to release untapped talent.

And we’re not alone. Astrea was one of the founding partners of the Northern Alliance of trusts, and it is this shared belief that education in the North can and will be better that brings what is quite a diverse mix of characters together. And, as a result, we collaborate rather than compete.

What’s so exciting about today’s results is what they represent; they signify a deeper movement, and perhaps the beginnings of a “Northern Spring” in the region’s schools. There is, of course, much, much more to be done, and just to make it that bit more challenging, it must be done in what are undoubtedly straitened financial times. This is where academy trusts come into their own and deliver real value. Bringing together services and driving efficiency, all so that we squeeze as many pennies from every pound and deploy it in the classroom.

To those who question the value of academies and MATs, I would invite them to venture out of London and come and see what is happening in the North. They might well be very surprised.

Libby Nicholas is chief executive of Astrea Academy Trust

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Libby Nicholas

Libby Nicholas is chief executive of the Astrea Academy Trust

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