Why the North is a powerhouse to rival London

30th January 2015 at 00:00
Leading headteacher hails the `revolution' in region's schools

One of the country's leading headteachers, recently knighted in the New Year's Honours List, has hailed a "revolution" taking place in the North of England, bucking the supposed North-South divide in education.

Sir John Townsley, executive principal of the Gorse Academies Trust, which oversees two academies and a free school in Leeds, said that although the focus was often on the success of schools in London, there was much to be celebrated across the North of England that often went unrecognised.

Sir John steered Morley High School from a satisfactory Ofsted rating to an outstanding grade before it converted to academy status in 2011. He then helped to turn around the Farnley Academy, which was given notice to improve by the inspectorate in 2010 but is now also judged to be outstanding.

Similar success stories were taking place in poorer areas across the North, he said, challenging the notion held by many that the region is struggling.

"What's taking place at the moment is the beginning of a revolution with regards to the work taking place with disadvantaged children," Sir John said. "That's what I am seeing, and not just in the work that we're doing but across the country and outside of London. There is evidence of it in Birmingham, Leeds, the North East - right across the North."

Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has previously warned of huge regional variations in the standard of schools, claiming that England's education system was a "tale of two nations". Figures released by the inspectorate in 2014 showed that in 13 areas, all but two of which were in the North, the chance of pupils attending a secondary school that was good or better was less than 50 per cent.

Earlier this month, cities and universities minister Greg Clark said the country's top universities needed to do more to attract the brightest students from across the North, in a bid to tackle the regional divide.

But Sir John said many schools in the North were "quietly going about their business", improving the life chances of poorer children who were under "very little" pressure to get an education.

"It's wonderful; it's really significant stuff. Not all, but most, of these children would have had a double disadvantage of a challenging home life and a challenging school," he said. "I would very much say that there are real success stories taking shape in the North. It's maybe not so deep-rooted as perhaps it is in London, but what really matters is that it's not undermined or disturbed."

His comments were echoed by Dame Kathy August, former headteacher of the Manchester Academy in Moss Side and the new chair of the Independent Academies Association.

"I think the gap is in perception more than performance," Dame Kathy said. "If we are to link children's education to economic development, which we have to for their future, then this idea of a powerhouse of the North is very exciting.

"When I was head at a school in Moss Side, we would have journalists, often from London, who would want to portray our young people as facing a life in the ghetto. It's ridiculous.

"This is such a small country and parts of it, like the North with its legacy and its heritage, should be exploited to the benefit of everyone."

Among the schools generating interest in the North is the Dixon Trinity Academy in Bradford, a free school that says it has tried to take the best practice from schools all over the UK, both state and independent, as well as from abroad.

Principal Luke Sparkes told TES: "What we're doing isn't revolutionary: what we try to do is take a few things and do them to the best of our ability. When we see something being done that we think is really great, we try to do it well and we don't do anything that doesn't add any value.

"London's schools have been phenomenally successful, so they deserve their plaudits. But there are some really great schools doing impressive things outside of the capital."

Sir John's Gorse Academies Trust opened a free school in September, bringing the total number of institutions it manages to three, but he believes it was a "mistake" of the government's academy policy to allow academy chains to grow too big, too fast.

"We [initially] fixed ourselves on one partnership, with a school that's only three miles away," he said. "Rather than getting involved with a whole range of schools, we supported one school in becoming truly outstanding.

"There are examples such as the Harris Federation [which runs 35 primary and secondary schools], which has a much more deep-rooted excellence, but there are others who don't and you have to generate that excellence over time.

"We want to stick to 10 or 12 schools. There could be an optimum size beyond which you lose the intimacy."

A capital idea for London-bound families

The popularity of London's schools has prompted The Good Schools Guide to set up a dedicated service for parents seeking to educate their children in the capital.

The move comes after a dramatic improvement in the results gained by state schools in London, which went from being the worst-performing English region at GCSE to the best in the space of eight years.

The new London service is a response to unprecedented demand set against the shortage of school places, according to Susan Hamlyn, director of The Good Schools Guide advice service. She says it is aimed at families moving to the UK from abroad and from elsewhere in the UK, as well as those already living in London.

The quality of the city's schools is a key part of London's appeal, Ms Hamlyn explains. "The top London schools have an international reputation which is probably second to none," she says. "There are countless reasons people want to live in London but I don't think they would come if they didn't think we had excellent schools."

Almost half of the parents who used the advice service last year were only interested in schools in London.

Ms Hamlyn says she is working with one Russian family with seven children who want to move to London solely because of the capital's schools. "They are typical," she adds. "The corollary is that 99 per cent of the people who move here in the hope of getting their children into a particular school don't have a chance of doing so."

Ms Hamlyn says the top-performing London schools are also seen as stepping stones to the country's best universities.

As well as advising on admission arrangements for state and independent schools, the dedicated London service will offer information on private tutoring, special needs support and even where to live.

Analysis of London's results in the Programme for International Student Assessment suggests that if the city's results were replicated in the rest of the country, England would be ranked 17th in English and maths, rather than 27th.

The transformation of London's schools will be discussed at the London Festival of Education next month. The event, hosted by TES and the UCL Institute of Education, will take place on Saturday 28 February. Speakers will include shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation Kevan Collins and Pasi Sahlberg, an expert on school reform.

For more information and to book a ticket, visit www.londonfestivalofeducation.com

Nick Morrison


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today