Headteachers John Barnes and Andrew O’Neill have both a lot and little in common. Both are successful leaders grappling with the impact of the pandemic as well as the usual challenges facing 21st-century schools.
But Barnes leads a small trust, the Seaton Valley Federation, in the heart of Blyth Valley, Northumberland, one of the most marginal “red wall” seats in the country, at a time when the government is under huge pressure to explain what its levelling up agenda means for longstanding Labour constituencies that switched to the Conservatives in 2019.
O’Neill, meanwhile, is the head of an inner-city London secondary in an area of high deprivation at the heart of one of the wealthiest boroughs in the country. All Saints Catholic college in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has almost double the national average of pupils eligible for free school meals.
It is within walking distance of Grenfell Tower and some of the most expensive homes in Britain. The Kensington parliamentary constituency also could be described as the most marginal “blue wall” seat in England, with a parliamentary majority of just 150, having been held by the Tories for most of the last 50 years.
But two years after the election that delivered Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority on the back of a promise to equalise opportunities across the UK, both heads are unclear what levelling up means for their schools.
A white paper, now expected in February, has been repeatedly delayed amid rumours that the Treasury will not provide adequate funding to meet the expectations of voters who handed Boris Johnson victory.
Meanwhile, school funding has taken a hit over the past decade. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the 9% real-terms cut in spending per pupil puts a “major brake on levelling up”. Reforms to the way money is distributed to schools, intended to make the system fairer, have been exposed for disproportionately benefiting schools with lower disadvantage.
Even without the pandemic learning loss, it would take 500 years, at current rates, to close the GCSE attainment gap between children from different backgrounds. Yet there has only been one levelling up policy for schools – a premium for maths and science teachers – and that is yet to be implemented.
“Levelling up is a lovely soundbite,” says Barnes. “But where is the detail for education and more generally? I have never met a headteacher who doesn’t want their children to do the very best and I have never had a politician come and sit in my office and ask me what we need.
“Our schools are not particularly disadvantaged, and I would agree that free school meals are a good proxy for deprivation, but we have a lot of ‘just about managing’ families. They get excluded from extra funding and there needs to be a better conversation about those people. They need to see jobs and cultural opportunities in their communities, good mental health support and they need to see someone cares about them.
“Above all, if we want to level up, we need honesty about one thing. We need to fund state schools at the same level as private schools. I am not against private schools but their termly fees are the equivalent of my annual per pupil funding. This is unfair.”
At the other end of the country, O’Neill acknowledges there is resentment about London schools, which receive more per-pupil funding than schools elsewhere in the country and get better results than some areas that have been branded “left behind”.
In the past year he has been developing a website, Lighthouse, that crunches government data about schools, their funding, their results and local contexts including income deprivation affecting children index (IDACI) data.
“This is a very complex issue,” he says. “It certainly isn’t going to be resolved by a political project that pushes funds into certain areas to try and win votes. A few more vanity capital projects in the north are not going to make significant change.
“One of the reasons I set up the website was because the government puts data in lots of different places and I wanted to see it together to be able to find schools like my own so that I could make comparisons, as well as potentially making contact to see how we could improve.
“There are areas of deep deprivation within many local authority areas. Parts of Kensington are more deprived than parts of Blyth Valley but is it all about the money? Probably not. We are a school in IDACI decile one, with 50% of pupils eligible for the pupil premium, yet our children see wealth and opportunity on the doorsteps.
“We have a music teacher who teaches choral works in Latin. London schools probably have access to a more mobile pool of high-performing, well-educated members of staff. Unless we define what we mean by levelling up, how can we judge success? Is it income, is it opportunities, is it pupil outcomes?
“We need a deeper understanding of the issues to make the changes that will benefit all young people. For too long education has been beholden to politicians offering neat soundbites that tinker at the edges but don’t produce the scale of transformation needed to provide high-quality education across the whole of the country.”
One aspect of the levelling up agenda that fascinates O’Neill is the plight of the safe Conservative seats in which students appear to do less well than some of the much trailed “red wall” areas.
Dan Morrow leads the Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust in Torridge and West Devon, where the former attorney general Sir Geoffrey Cox, whose lucrative overseas legal practice abroad was recently exposed, has a 25,000 majority.
Morrow feels strongly that political expediency may obscure the need for more investment in areas such as his. “Trying to level up areas such as the former ‘red wall’ means that traditionally Conservative areas may be overlooked, despite the clear case for increased support,” he says.
“I appreciate that there are post-industrial towns and cities that need investment. I’ve worked in schools in deprived areas across the country. But rural poverty remains a major issue and the same underlying problems exist here; huge disparities between rich and poor, lack of affordable housing and job opportunities, outdated transport links, which make opportunities harder for younger people, and the sense of isolation that then comes from rural disadvantage.
“Just because this is taking place in a constituency that also has wealthy semi-aristocratic landowners and stunning scenery, doesn’t make it less of a pronounced issue for young people. If the government want to take levelling up seriously – and make it clear it isn’t just being pursued for political gain – then they must bring more of a focus to rural poverty.”
By the time children get to primary school they can be 18 months behind their peers
Morrow would like to see closer integration of health, social care and education for young people. “Essentially the disparity in thresholds and provision exacerbates inequalities, and circumstances of birth remain too anchored to a sense of inevitable destiny,” he says.
Anita Bath, the chief executive of the Bishop Bewick Catholic Education Trust, has oversight of schools in three local authorities across north-east England, including rural, inner-city Labour and now Conservative areas. She is also adamant that political boundaries should be irrelevant.
“More money is always very welcome as it brings freedom, but there are structural issues that need to be rethought rather than sticking plasters. Where are the big thinkers in education?” she says. “We know that by the time children get to primary school they can be 18 months behind their peers. We need to rethink the whole primary sector and narrow the gap at that point.”
A recent poll suggested that if there were a general election now, the Tories would lose all but three of their “red wall” seats, so the challenge facing ministers is intense. An education white paper, the first since 2016, has also been promised this year, but Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which has produced its own blueprint for change, believes there is a range of pressing issues.
“Children with special educational needs clearly need more support. Post-16 education has been treated by the government as the poor relation with the largest falls in funding of any sector of the education system over the past decade,” he says. “And schools in England require £11.4bn of repairs, according to the Department for Education’s own figures.
“You can’t level up without tackling these problems. Then there’s the long-running and intractable issue of a big gap in academic attainment between disadvantaged youngsters and other children, and the fact that, in normal times, about one-third of pupils leave secondary education with less than a grade 4 in GCSE English and maths.”
He adds: “If levelling up means anything, we have to do better for these young people. Having sufficient funding is a significant factor, but there are others too. Curriculum and qualifications aren’t working for them.
“If the government gets this right, with clarity and ambition, it could be a seminal moment. What it cannot be is more of the same.”
• Additional data used for this article can be found here.