The case for a North East Schools Challenge was first mooted by former Education Minister Lord Adonis, who pushed for cash to improve educational attainment across the region’s schools when conducting his review of the North East economy last year.
He wanted to model the challenge on a similar programme in London in which £80m was spent turning around results in inner-city schools.
After education professionals and business leaders got their heads together and came up with a tailor-made plan for the North East, it now has the cash to get under way after emerging as one of the successful parts of the region’s Local Growth Fund bid.
The North East Local Enterprise Partnership will plough £4.7m a year for six years into developing good leadership and improving careers advice.
Outstanding school leaders will share good practice with others, while governors with a business background and enterprise advisers will be installed.
It comes as thousands of roles are created in the software, subsea engineering and science and technology sectors, but a skills gap is threatening to close off these opportunities to a generation of young people.
Andrew Hodgson, North East local enterprise partnership (LEP) vice chair and lead board member for skills, said: “We have got to make sure that people understand that the North East has been very successful in creating jobs.
“A number of sectors are growing very quickly and we are running out of people with the right skills to help these sectors continue to grow.
“Your economic value is directly linked to the skill level that you have. The higher the skills level in the region, the better regional economy we will have.”
Mr Hodgson said the LEP is currently pulling together a group of experts who will help decide what an education challenge will look like in the North East.
“Our plan is to reveal what the challenge will look like by March next year,” he said.
“During the summer term we will start the detailed planning for implementation and we’re looking to launch the challenge by September of next year.
“The important thing for us is that it’s independent from the schools and independent from any Government mechanism too.
“Whilst we are commissioning the work, our neighbouring Tees Valley LEP may well want to participate. My hope would be that the two LEPs join together to form a better economy of scale. The more local authorities we have working together the better.
“I think there’s a lot we can draw from the London challenge. We want the community to understand that they have to help us raise the aspirations of young people. There is no excuse for failure. It’s about enabling school leaders to be excellent.
“Key to the challenge will be businesses working with schools.
“The careers service in schools has not been working effectively for a very long time. There have been a lot of attempts to resolve that but this is about getting real businesspeople involved with all schools.”
In London, many schools involved in the scheme saw significant improvements in standards and results. Head teachers were allowed to bring in consultants and experts to tackle problems.
Woodside Secondary School in north London was one of the worst performing in the city. But since being involved with the London Challenge in 2003 its results have improved dramatically every year.
But Gill Alexander, who is director of child and adult services at Hartlepool Borough Council, says improving school grades and raising the number of people studying at higher education will require more than just money.
She said: “The Adonis Review called for more and better jobs in the North East and that has to start at a school level.
“We need to build the right skills in young people from cradle to career. This is about ambition – we are not about saying the North East is in trouble.
“Our young people need the skills and qualifications to be able to prosper.
“We have some outstanding schools, some of the best in the country, but if we want to see a consistent shift across the region, it can’t be left to individual schools or local authorities. We need to make a collective impact.”
Figures released by the education watchdog Ofsted show that the region’s primary schools are among the best in the country, but that many children become lost when they get to secondary school.
The 855 primary schools inspected across the region up to December 2013 fared better than the rest of the country with no schools classed as inadequate and 20% graded outstanding. This is set against a national average of 2% inadequate and 17% outstanding.
But secondary schools are trailing behind the rest of the country, with 6% of the 182 secondary schools inspected classed as inadequate (higher than the national average of 5%) and only 19% rated outstanding, below the national rate of 23%.
Hilary French, headmistress at Central Newcastle High School, says there is an over-arching aim to raise achievement in the North East.
“It’s about raising the achievement rate of all North East children, not just those in primary,” she said. “After all, it’s only through education that the region can become a stronger element of the UK economy.
“Some schools are performing really well at 11+, but we need to share good practice between schools and improve performance. We blame our cultural heritage and worst of all we blame schools, but the only way we start to make a break is to stop talking and do something about it.”
Schools North East director Rebecca Earnshaw is firmly behind the region’s school leaders.
“We don’t want to play catch up with other regions, we want to leapfrog over them,” she said. “There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm from schools and parents who want to make a difference.
“This isn’t about pulling together a one-year strategy; this improvement needs to be sustainable for a long period of time.”