School leaders have joined forces in a bid to secure millions of pounds of Government funding to boost underperforming schools across the North East.
Headteachers, governors, council leaders and even employers are drawing up a master plan to improve results in some of the region’s worst-performing schools.
The North East Schools Challenge - a version of a similar scheme that pushed up children’s achievement in London - is part of a £200m-a-year set of proposals put together by business and political leaders in the region.
Plans for a North East Schools Challenge were first recommended by Lord Adonis, based on a London scheme in which £80m was spent turning around results in inner-city schools.
Names for the new North East Schools’ super group have already been suggested, including ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘The Great North Schools Challenge’.
But project leader Gill Alexander says improving school grades and raising the number of people studying at higher education will require more than just money.
Ms Alexander, who is director of child and adult services at Hartlepool Borough Council, said: “If we can secure even half of what the London scheme received that will go a long way to helping achieve the aspirations of young people across the region. The North East LEP has asked for £30m, but that’s not the only challenge we face.
“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. But to achieve that ambition we need the Government’s support and financial backing.”
Ms Alexander, formerly director of children, young people and learning at North Tyneside Council, said she was looking for a “a region-wide approach that everyone can benefit from.”
She said: “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.”
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.
Education Secretary Michael Gove sparked fury last year when he warned he could “smell the sense of defeatism” in some North East schools.
He picked out East Durham as a prime example of where schools were dogged by a “problem of ambition in certain traditional communities”.
Bernard Trafford, who is headmaster at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, has often been asked to open academies in communities across the region.
But Mr Trafford, who is also a member of the new North East Schools Challenge lobby group, says it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.
“We all know there’s this big achievement gap,” he said. “But what one community needs in the North East, another does not.
“That is why, with our expertise and local knowledge, we can tackle the challenge ourselves. I’m as excited as anyone to be part of that.”
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.”