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Best academy trusts would not go north, says Northern Powerhouse chief

Lord Jim O’Neill some of the best MATs would not dream of going anywhere in the North (PA)
Lord Jim O’Neill some of the best MATs would not dream of going anywhere in the North (PA)

High-performing multi-academy trusts (MATs) would not want to take on schools in the 55 education investment areas identified by the levelling up paper because the areas are too risky, a leading economist has said.

Lord Jim O’Neill, vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, told an event held by the Education Policy Institute and Teach First on levelling up at the Houses of Parliament: “Some of the best MATs would not dream of going anywhere in the North, because it’s too hot.

“It’s a bit like venture capital – people that invest go into venture capital, where you might risk losing all your money.”

He said that only three of the 30 local authorities with the smallest disadvantage gaps were outside London.

He questioned whether the Government’s plans for full academisation by 2030, announced in the schools White Paper, were really a “magical bullet” for educational disadvantage.

“The education White Paper and the education Bill that is coming along with levelling up, in my judgment, speaking really candidly … it is really backing a big horse of which so far there remains pretty limited evidence as to whether the academies movement is some magical bullet that’s a gamechanger,” he said.

“In the most tricky parts of this country, I don’t think whether a school is part of an academies chain is going to be neither here nor there.”

He added that the “single most interesting place” in the the country was the North East.

“It really refutes so much accepted wisdom about the educational journey. In early years it’s actually as good as or slightly above the average across the country and in the North. By the time we get to the end of secondary school, it is dramatically the worst.”

He said he suspected that in areas such as Northumberland, people lived in quite “remote, removed places” and did not have the transport links to get around.

He added that it was not “worthy” of a phrase like levelling up to apply such a “centralised approach” to these kinds of issues.

Farihah Alam, deputy headteacher of Buile Hill Academy in Salford, quoted a letter from one of her year 10 pupils, Ethan, at the event saying: “Kids from the North are far more disadvantaged than kids from the South in my opinion. In the South, people are given a lot more support for the problems they face.

“I think kids in London have it easier because they get more help. They don’t have to pay for their own bus tickets, even though we do, and we have to pay for trips now because our schools don’t have enough money.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We don’t agree with Lord Jim O’Neill. Many MATs have an excellent track record of working with and supporting schools in all sorts of contexts.

“The problem they tend to face is more one of capacity. Working with a new school takes time and resources, and the coverage of MATs varies across the country.

“The government did not approach academisation in a particularly strategic way and as a result the system is very fragmented.

“It now aims to have all schools academised and working in or planning to join MATs by 2030 but it isn’t yet clear exactly how this will happen and there is a lot of work to do before we reach that point.”

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