Northern regeneration needs to prioritise children's opportunities

Anne Longfield
Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I grew up in Otley, in West Yorkshire, and there's no doubt that my childhood experiences in that small market town influenced the choices I made later in life.

I grew up in Otley, in West Yorkshire, and there's no doubt that my childhood experiences in that small market town influenced the choices I made later in life.

The villages, towns and cities of our formative years certainly mould our futures. That's why I think it's so important we study what makes somewhere a great place to be born and raised, and why at the end of last year I launched the year-long "Growing up North" project.

Many urban areas will soon have regional governments headed by directly elected mayors with powers much greater than existing local government to define their areas. This is an amazing chance to develop new strategies for regeneration and deliver a "northern powerhouse" agenda for children.

Every one of the 3.6 million children growing up in the north of England should have the opportunities to look forward to happy, healthy and prosperous lives, wherever they live. Sadly, the statistics tell us there is currently a North-South divide, which acts as a barrier to success and, in turn, leads to a wealth and earnings gap in adulthood.

For example, a child who qualifies for free school meals is 41 per cent more likely to get five good GCSEs in London than in the North. There are 13 towns and cities in the North where fewer than half of pupils get five A*-C GCSEs - that's more than 50 per cent of the children getting to age 16 without the necessary qualifications to get on a hairdressing course.

And a young person in the South East with at least one A-level or equivalent qualification is 57 per cent more likely to go to a top university compared to a child in the North.

Quite simply, many children living in the North do not have the same chances as those in London and the South.

For some children in different areas, the divides will be different. The gap may be in early years provision before children start school, or between primary and secondary school. While for others, the challenge is bridging the gap from school into the workplace.

It is important to remember that there are success stories too. Primary schools in the North East are the best in the country - in fact, 97 per cent of children in Newcastle go to a "good" or "outstanding" primary school. Meanwhile, Yorkshire has the best further education colleges in England, and a child in the North is more than twice as likely to be in an apprenticeship a year after leaving school than a child in London or the South East.

That is why the experts on the Growing up North panel will look at all the evidence of what happens between childhood and adulthood to shape the lives of our children. It will help us to understand what makes an area a great place to grow up, and identifies where children are excelling and where they are being left behind.

During a series of regional summits in places such as Hull, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool, we will visit schools, businesses, universities and workplaces, listening to children's and parents' experiences, and finding out how the community they live in shapes their ambitions for the future. At the end of the project, I will make recommendations about the best ways of putting children at the heart of the regeneration agenda.

We cannot continue to accept the decades of failure that some areas have experienced, and we will need a whole community response - from businesses, local government, sports, culture, the arts and the voluntary sector.

If we want to increase the employment rate in the North, we need to ensure that we do not have large groups of children leaving school without good qualifications. And if we want to increase productivity, we have to be nourishing the brightest talents, getting them to the best universities and giving them a reason to stay in the North afterwards.

That is why Growing up North aims to find out why children do better in some parts of the country than others, and what it is about the place they grow up in that supports them to succeed.

As a proud and passionate northerner myself, I want to see children growing up in the North who believe in the North, who are proud of the North and who see their future in the North. That would be good for our economy and good for our society and I believe it can be done - but only if we build children into every aspect of this once-in-a-generation moment for northern regeneration.

Anne Longfield is children's commissioner for England

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