To misquote Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “the North is big”. You might think it’s a long way down the road from Walthamstow to Watford, but it’s peanuts compared with the distance between Carlisle and Manchester.
As I live and work in Carlisle, I will point out that Manchester – the northernmost point that most event organisers can imagine – is 120 miles away from us. This is similar to the distance between London and Nottingham, and what right-minded London practitioner would routinely board a train at 5.45am to attend meetings, conferences or training?
If I were to meet you at one of these events, you might ask me where I’m from. It’s likely – and I’m going on extensive experience here – that when I tell you “Carlisle”, you will furrow your brow, puzzled for a moment. You may say something along the lines of, “You don’t sound Welsh ....” When I patiently explain that Carlisle is a northern English city on the Scottish border, your face will brighten and you’ll exclaim, “Oh, you mean Carlisle ...,” as if daft old provincial me is too stupid to pronounce the name of my own home town correctly. You might then express sorrow and sympathy that I’ve had to travel so far when you’ve only had to hop half an hour or so from home. If you’re feeling particularly bold, you might venture surprise that I’m familiar with the new-fangled inventions of the civilised South: the laptop … an electric light that comes on at the flick of a switch … shoes.
When the session ends ahead of schedule at 2.45pm, you’ll hop half an hour home, delighted at the thought of an early finish, not giving a second’s thought to my two-, three- or possibly five-hour journey back up North.
Carlisle is, technically, the most remote city in the UK. It’s the city furthest away from any other city and it’s the place where the most people die where they were born. This makes it a favourite with marketing companies, which launch new products here; the theory goes, if it catches on in Carlisle, it’ll catch on anywhere. You have us to thank for the oven chip and the rip-roaring but short-lived success of Sunny Delight, which began its life labelled “only available in Carlisle”.
Meanwhile, Cumbria and our neighbour Northumberland have the lowest population density in England, so not only is it difficult for us to meet up with those from outside our area, it’s tricky for us to meet up with each other. It can be even trickier for secondary teachers to find a new job that doesn’t require a big increase in commute or calling in removal men. The two largest secondary schools in the multi-academy trust where I teach are 56 miles apart, joined by a road notorious for fatalities and the likelihood of being stuck behind a tractor for a significant portion of the 90-minute journey. My own school – 10 miles out of Carlisle – has a catchment area of just over 1,000 square kilometres: equivalent to roughly 40 per cent of the inside of the M25. I have no idea how many secondary schools there are inside the M25 but, for context, when I worked in Walthamstow, north-east London, in the 1990s, there was a road sign that read: “Drive carefully, you are entering an area of 16 schools.” Sixteen schools ... Imagine.
The problem for us and others in remote areas (and before “Irate of Lincolnshire” sends in an angry email, I know we’re not the only ones) is that so much of education assumes a metropolitan model. Remember Tony Blair’s ill-fated 14-19 Diploma? Sharing resources and facilities across schools made sense when students could be ferried 10 minutes down the road. Not so much when the journey to and from the nearest partner school meant an hour and half on the bus. And not forgetting those students who live in far-flung villages who already spend well over an hour per day travelling to school.
Of course, we have a culture of our own; we are awash with Roman and reiver history; nature abounds. But exhibitions and theatre tours often pass us by. The nearest theatre is 50 miles away and again, the cost and length of journey make the whole enterprise difficult. Recently, I costed a trip for sixth-formers to attend a conference in London. The event was reasonably priced at £23 per student but the cost of train travel on top of that was over £100 each. An attempt to book a similar event in the Midlands was scuppered by the state of public transport: three changes between here and Warwick made the trip by train farcical. Coach hire came in cheaper, but we had to leave at 4am in order to get there on time. In the end, we had to abandon the plan completely. It’s not the first time this has happened, but every time it does, it feels like our students have fewer opportunities than those further south – and that’s not fair.
I don’t want to sound like Mr Darcy, complaining about the inferiority of our connections, but there’s no doubt about it, the infrastructure is poor. Cumbria is routinely neglected by the very educational institutions that should be offering support. There have been only two successful Strategic School Improvement Fund bids in Cumbria this year and three in the North East; the furthest north that Teach First has come is Blackpool – over 100 miles away. The recent Growing Up North report by the children’s commissioner failed to mention Cumbria at all.
Cumbria’s per-pupil funding is amongst the lowest in the country and yet the deficiencies of northern education are frequently discussed. Too often, it feels like those discussions are happening far away from the villages, towns and cities where we teach, without any real consideration of the challenges that shape the education we offer.
So, what can be done? Investment, of course. But we’ve been holding out over the empty promises of more cash for decades. There was a brief flicker of hope around talk of the Northern Powerhouse, which was quickly extinguished when we realised it was no more than loose pre-election talk. We need northern voices to be heard and listened to; we need Teach First to consider sharing training and expertise, we need events to be organised so that we don’t always have to make a 200-mile round trip.
But, above all, we need to shatter the patronising stereotype of northern educators. We are as skilled, knowledgeable and dedicated as our colleagues in other parts of the country, and as willing to make improvements that will enhance the learning of our students. So next time you meet me, five hours away from home, don’t be offended if I don’t find it funny when you assume I’ll be impressed by electricity. Instead, consider the challenges I face, think about how we can work to solve them – or maybe travel a few hours yourself and share your skills and knowledge with us.
Sarah Ledger is director of learning at William Howard School in Cumbria