Schools across the country have forgotten how to teach kids to aspire to be better

Omicron, the new Covid variant, has had an unexpected victim: the long-awaited White Paper on levelling up. Boris Johnson’s plans to put his 2019 election pledge into reality will not be published until New Year, to give the government more time to focus on containing Covid.

The document, set to span industry, skills and transport, is crucial. Michael Gove, at the helm of the new department on Levelling up and Housing, has a vast challenge ahead.

Gove cannot reasonably be expected to take on briefs from other departments. But there is another major issue which needs to be addressed in order to achieve any form of equality of opportunity across the country.

Quite simply, the performance of secondary schools above the line from Bristol to the Wash in the East Midlands is just not good enough.

In recent rankings for secondary state schools, 17 out of the top 20 were in London and the South East.

The North West has a decent representation, with eight schools in the top 100. Though, this is remarkably less than the proportion of the total population which lives in the region. No fewer than five of these are located in the very prosperous South West of Greater Manchester, an area which would not look out of place in Surrey.

The West Midlands region has only four state schools in the top 100 – double that of Yorkshire. Neither the East Midlands or the North East had any schools break through to the top of the league.

In the independent sector, the concentration of the best performers in London and the South East is even more marked. Manchester again has its own cluster, with schools such as Manchester Grammar and Withington Girls. But elsewhere, high performing schools are scarce.

Of course, there are different ways of ranking schools, just as with universities. But any ranking which is mainly based on exam results will paint a very similar picture.

This depressing story is hardly news. Six years ago, for example, the then-head of Ofsted warned that too many pupils in Northern towns and cities were simply not prepared for the next phase of their education, training or employment.

It is no coincidence that where there is a cluster of very good state schools, in places like South Manchester and North Cheshire, there are also a number of excellent private schools. In fact, a major cross-national study, published by American Economic Association, found that “competition from privately operated schools positively affects achievement levels”.

While this is true, it is hardly a policy that can be replicated across the UK.

Simply throwing more money at it is not a solution either. The same article showed that pure expenditure per student had limited effect on student achievement.

The problem is a social one, with students unable to dream to do more.

There are already schemes in place which reward bright graduates who are willing to teach specific subjects, principally science and maths. But sprinkling resources across schools does not seem to achieve very much.

This needs to be targeted. There needs to be greater incentives to dynamic young teachers, willing to commit to working in left-behind areas for at least several years. The teaching unions might moan, but drastic action is needed to address the poor performance of our schools in the UK.

As published in City AM Wednesday 8th December 2021
Paul Ormerod
Image: pixnio

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.