Is secondary education failing in North West England? And why should we be worried about it?

Maybe I am prone to the odd sweeping statement, but how about this? I’m beginning to think we in the North West of England are at something of a ‘Gladwell-ian’ tipping point, and that this is just another sign that on its current course, the good ship Capitalism – on a much  broader basis – is heading for trouble.

Recently there has been a string of hugely interesting and relevant comment on education in NW England, on where and for whom the benefits of the Northern Powerhouse are going to accrue and on the wider issues of economic distribution of wealth and the role of capitalism. Interesting in their own right, but synthesise the common points and see what emerges.

If secondary education in the region is not delivering, what’s the real cause? Poor delivery or poor reception? Outgoing OFSTED head Sir Michael Wilshaw has warned of ‘fissures’ opening up between North and South Secondary educational standards. See the Daily Telegraph’s report on it here

Some of the statistics are shocking: apparently in Liverpool half of secondary schools are rated less than good, with it being 30% in Manchester and only 10% in London. Why? This can’t be blamed on areas of deprivation or other totems like immigration.  Sir Michael quickly went beyond these educational fissures and pointed to a wider feeling of alienation, expressing concern that the North was a lower priority at Westminster and alluding to the Brexit vote as another manifestation of Northern alienation. The North  – excluding the big cities – seems to be being blamed for the result. The issue is close to home for me, as my youngest daughter is at a school currently in Special Measures – although I can’t help feeling even this status is a political artifice.

Is it a supply issue? Apparently, schools regionally are involved in ‘auctions’ to attract teaching staff, suggesting a shortage of good teaching professionals. Elsewhere, commentators blame the parents for not being as pushy or aspirational as their southern counterparts. And yet this is a big region, with two – possibly more depending on where you draw your boundary – world-class cities in the region as well as a plethora of medium-sized towns with plentiful and varied industrial activities.  Why do Northern parents not see the same value in education?

All the more puzzling when we see the Northern Powerhouse happening around us. Oh yes, that’s why Manchester is gearing up to be the London of the North, with public transport infrastructure investment and a look and feel -and parking prices –  increasingly in sync with The Smoke. Isn’t this something to be excited and optimistic about? Well, yes and no. George Osborne MP, the architect and (former) bankroller for it all  – and now Chairman of the Northern Powerhouse partnership –  has recognises that voters in the North, outside of the major cities, were in favour of Brexit. Speaking in Liverpool he admitted:

“I think one of the big challenges we have got ahead is that there has been an amazing revival in these city centres in the north over the last 20 years but the industrial towns in between and the suburbs have felt, I think, a bit left behind. There have been a lot of good government initiatives from all governments to revive the waterfront, to rebuild the [Liverpool] docks, but go a bit further out from the city and people I think feel that they haven’t seen enough of the economic growth of the country.” See article bearing this quote here

Hardly coincidentally, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England also chose Liverpool and his Roscoe Lecture to say that ‘free-for-all’ capitalism has not benefitted everyone, mainly because  there is less and less trickle-down of wealth, more accentuated winners and losers, and a lack of faith and optimism in where it is all going. The type and quality of jobs for ordinary people is not changing for the better, and again he supports the view that outcomes like Brexit votes are a manifestation of this lack of optimism and dissatisfaction.

And then there is a very similar message painted on an even bigger canvas by Stephen Hawking. In the scientist’s typical forensic and undramatic language, he points out that Brexit and US elections are but two cries from the people that the establishment has failed them. In both cases, as with our stewardship of the planet, we have seen a lot of effort going into the forces of destruction (economic markets, political alliances, the environment, jobs, people, ancient tribes and culture) without the corresponding effort to replace and create a new, sustainable way forward for humanity and its planet. He contrasts the investment in technology with the persistent state of poverty for many in the world and warns that if the working classes were decimated by automation, the middle classes will be decimated by Artificial Intelligence (Ai), leaving very few winners. Something that Carney echoed in his speech. This used to be the stuff of sci-fi, but it’s surprisingly close and already happening.

As a Marketer I am increasingly being asked to provide an almost entirely technological toolkit to understanding and acting upon what humans do and think. On this basis we are already well on the way to reducing Marketing to an AI process where the likes of me only bring human error to the party, or so you’d thing from the many job specifications now circulating in cyberspace. It might work – but should we let it? Recently I read somewhere a quip about the rise of hand car washes. A sure sign of economic decline when an automatable process is actually done manually – and more cheaply. Of course, we could automate everything, but should we? I’m not a Luddite, but I do wonder who is going to buy consumer goods and services if too few people have the disposable income that employment brings. Nothing wrong with harnessing the benefits of ‘progress’, but what are the human implications?

Wow, how did we get from failing schools to thoughts on life, the universe and everything? The common thread, I think,  is hope. People need it, and lots of people need it. We are being naïve if we think this problem of North West England’s secondary schools is an isolated phenomenon that can be addressed with an educational sticking plaster. But unless we find a way of redistributing hope – in whatever form it needs to be to make people content and valued – we are heading for some very big rocks. And for now, maybe it starts with the parents of at least some North West schoolchildren thinking ‘Secondary education for my child… why?’

Is it a localised and specific problem? Just maybe it’s a hugely important signal about where we are ALL heading.  Stefan Stern –  Visiting Professor at Cass Business School – in his  Guardian piece points to the implications of the disconnect between quantity and quality of jobs (i.e. pay). He refers to a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which shows that employment is not necessarily a route out of poverty. A lot of people now have jobs like these: the ‘gig’ market as it is called. Those surviving on ‘gigs’ may not see a lot of value in education per se, just being good enough to turn up and do a day’s work, like the Liverpool stevedores used to.

And in closing here is an example of my own predicament: The Grocer is THE trade magazine for my sector (FMCG food). Yesterday I did a simple search for ‘marketing’ jobs. The results, broken down by UK regions, were: 191 positions advertised, 175 being in London and the South East: that’s ninety one percent! It may or may not be representative over time or across roles, or sectors or industries, but that’s what it shows. Is anyone else worried?