THE Government launched its industrial strategy with new look apprenticeships last month at Gateshead College. The skills minster, Robert Halfon, announced an extra £170m funding for Institutes of Technology, which could involve an upgrading of  further education colleges in the North East. Both Gateshead College and nearby Bishop Auckland are likely to benefit given their ‘excellent’ track record in delivering technical, vocational education and apprenticeships.

While some high-tech sectors of the regional economy have been identified, the Government has used its industrial policy to unveil the Post-16 Skills plan, based on the 2016 Sainsbury Review. The Plan sets out 15 new routes into high skilled employment to allow those young people who don’t want to go to university to achieve a technical qualification from level 3 to Foundation degree level 5, 

Of-course this appears to an attractive opportunity for teachers who work in the region’s 16 under-funded FE colleges. Yet as Dr. Martin Allen points out on his Education Economy Society blog, it remains unclear whether the Government’s strategy will help job opportunities for the 60 per cent who don’t go to university at 18.

Nor is it a new idea. The former Conservative Minister, Michael Heseltine, outlined a similar state intervention back in 1984, which came to nothing. Twenty years later New Labour government commissioned the Tomlinson Review which called for the introduction of specialist diplomas for the 14 to 19 year old age cohort.

Back then there had been concerns about keeping the A-level, long seen as the ‘gold standard’ of British schooling. Vocational education enjoyed a low status. Tomlinson’s main proposal was to replace GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications with a single diploma over a 10 year period. The diploma would have operated at four levels: entry (pre-GCSE), foundation (GCSE up to D grade), intermediate (GCSE at A to C) and A-level.

Students would have been able to progress at their own pace in mixed-age classes. A-level students would have taken more challenging tasks to get higher marks. The diploma, backed by many policy makers, would have been made up of ‘modules’ (short courses) from the existingA leveland GCSE modules. Students would have opted for one of the 20 pre-designed specialist diplomas. As Tomlinson argued, this would have strengthened   vocational qualifications as the so-called ‘academic’ subjects could have been studied alongside the more ‘vocational’ ones.

All learners from 14 on would have studied ‘functional skills’ – numeracy, communication and ICT and done an extended written project alongside work experience, paid jobs or volunteering. By 2005 Tony Blair shelved the report to avoid upsetting ‘middle England’ who were wedded to the academic A-level. With the election of the coalition government Michael Gove in his first week as Education Minister axed the idea 14-19 specialist diplomas.

By 2012, the government commissioned Wolfe Report, released its findings about the state of post-16 vocational education in the UK. Its conclusions were damning. Too many youngsters were doing low level vocational qualifications in colleges with little value to their job prospects. Apprenticeships were too short and bore no resemblance to the old style five-year apprenticeships which had dominated Post-war British industry, commerce and public services. In short, the system was in a mess. It needed urgent surgery.

Today 25% of youngsters aged 16 to 19 do A-levels. But 75% are either on high quality BTEC programmes, ailing apprenticeship schemes or on low level ‘mickey mouse’ training schemes. A minority on Tyneside are able to combine A-levels with BTEC National level 3 certificates in job related areas such as business or technology.

Both the CBI and TUC have long argued that the North East and elsewhere has fallen behind other regions and countries in the level of ‘intermediate’ skills held by the workforce. Some continue to see the German system of technical education and the apprenticeships as the way forward. Certainly there’s a lot of mileage in this argument. Yet at present competition for the available high quality apprenticeships with reputable employers is fierce. Take Nissan, the Wearside car manufacturer: over 1,000 qualified 18-24-year olds applied for a dozen well paid apprenticeships!

Yet it is increasingly recognised by some forward thinking policy analysts like Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley in their book Another Great Training Robbery that several skilled and ‘technician’ level jobs across the economy are vanishing. This is due to further technological changes like automation and digitisation. Where these jobs do continue to exist, they are likely to be filled by university graduates who find themselves ‘overqualified and underemployed’.

With the advent of robots, the decline of blue-collar/ white-blouse work and potential mass unemployment, it may well be the case that there won’t be enough highly skilled jobs to go around for those who are qualified. Instead, ‘deskilled’ work at the bottom end of the service sector and precarious self-employment may continue to increase.

As Allen notes, it’s likely that growing inequities, rather than lack of skills, will be the main problem in the UK jobs market of the future. Governments may be forced to explore alternative strategies such as the Universal Basic Income Guarantee, being piloted in Finland and Holland and job-sharing to address these issues.

Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and advisor to Policy North.

He writes in a personal capacity.


By Jacqui Miller, Director, Miller International

It appears that only months on from that famous photo shoot where the 7 regional authorities posed with chancellor George Osbourne and signed 'in principal' to vote for an elected mayor and in so doing devolve financial power to our region that our future within the Northern Powerhouse may be in jeopardy.This historic movement would see the the North East in a position to control its own destiny for the first time ever however because some of our regions politicians have decided to put politics before the very people they say they stand for then we may be left out in the cold whilst our neighbours in the Tees Valley forge ahead with their ambitious plans for future regional regeneration.

It's imperative that as a region we do what's best for the long term future of our region and that means working together to ensure we find a solution to move forward and grasp this once in a lifetime opportunity. To say 'it just doesn't work for us' isn't good enough. It's not about one authority or another and it's most certainly not about party politics although unfortunately it very much seems that some of our MP's are making sure it's just that.

Devolved power is about our regions future it's about a UNITED approach, it's about putting the great people of the North East and their future first and it's about looking to the future and NOT living in the past.

When are some of our politicians going to stop living in the past? Even today I continue to hear the story of the pit closures. It's now over 3 decades since the miners strikes so how long are they going to regurgitate the same old story? A story that is so bias in favour of the then militant union leader figure of Arthur Scargill. I was a young adult at the time and I remember thinking how very dictatorial Mr Scargill appeared as he ranted away on his soapbox. His message he tried to suggest was one of solidarity in trying to force the government of the time to continue to plow many many millions into an industry that was costing the country countless millions more, the economics just did not add up. The same Mr Scargill that while the miners and their families survived through food donations from family, neighbours and regional food banks frequently dined in the lap of luxury up and down the country, his 3 course dinners often accompanied by an expensive bottle of red wine. He didn't suffer, no it was only the working men and women he was supposed to represent that suffered under his continued orders to strike. Indeed fast forward to December 2012 and Mr Scargill took the NUM ( national union of miner workers) to court claiming he was still entitled to live in the London flat he had instructed NUM to pay the £34k a year rent for on his behalf decades earlier without the knowledge of NUM members and most of their senior officials. He lost the case but an insight perhaps into the type of man he is. A socialist he claimed of himself who in 1993 had attempted to use Margaret thatchers 'right to buy' policy a woman he confessed to 'hate' but was prepared to use her policy non the less to purchase the same flat he later took the NUM to court over for his own personal gain.....

Given these facts its rather ironic is it not that in parts of the North East even today the ' Scargill effect' still hugely influences many decisions even those of generations that were not born at the time, maybe after reading this they may think twice?

What is clear is that we cannot allow the politics and politicians of a bygone era to effect our future. We have no right playing games with the jobs of our future generations. Someone once said to me 'I don't look back as I'm not going that way' and I think this sums up perfectly the type of attitude we need to see in our regions politicians for the sake of the present and future prosperity.

Times change, what was in vogue yesterday no longer appeals and unless we are prepared to be brave and support the opportunity we have through controlling our own finances then we have only ourselves to blame when we are the country's forgotten area. By ourselves of course I mean our regional authorities and the MPs elected by the people to serve the people and not their own interests. Personal ambitions are one thing and ambition is healthy in the right context but should never be placed above the importance of serving their constituents. I certainly hope that when it comes to it this is not the case and that we see 'common sense' prevail to benefit the masses and not the few. I'm a born and bred local girl and enormously proud of it too. I'm interested only in ensuring that as a region we get what we so richly deserve, the opportunity to control our destiny. We've never been afraid of hard work indeed some of our factories are the most productive at what they do in the world. We can't allow our politicians to get this wrong on our behalf, it's imperative we protect the future generations and we provide an environment that raises their aspirations and in so doing making them believe that to be born in the north east is a privilege and that for them the sky really is the limit!    


Ivory Towers and Economic Growth

By Andrew Mitchell, Chief Executive, North East Finance

Andrew Mitchell is Chief Executive of North East Finance, which runs the £140m ‘JEREMIE’ programme and he also serves as a lay member of Council at Durham University. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own and do not represent the views of either organization.

Based on my own experience over two decades at the academic / business interface, I see many ways in which universities already contribute to the local economies in which they operate. Here in the North East we are fortunate to have four excellent institutions two of which are members of the prestigious Russell Group of research-intensive universities.

A recent Universities UK (UUK) Report (1) suggested that the four generate over £400m of export earnings for the North East - including local spending by overseas students. Some 30,000 students come to our area each year from elsewhere in the UK or overseas to study. All four have significant research and training collaborations in place with local employers and have produced successful spin-outs.

Here are just some of the ways in which universities make a difference to our local economy:-

·         Asmajor local employers, offering many high value, highly skilled jobs;

·         Through spending (directly and indirectly) - boosting local businessesand cultural venues;

·         Through their contribution to the local tax base;

·         As ‘windows’ onto the outside world, through their engagement with institutions, governments and policy agendas in the UK and overseas;

·         As regional ‘brands’ helpingto generate awareness for the North East globally;

·         Through research and training collaborations with local companies, knowledge transfer and spin-out activity;

·         Through active collaboration with local and regional policy agendas

Nevertheless, the perception remains that universities generally are still insufficiently engaged with their local economies. A recent report for the Government, commissioned by Sir Andrew Witty (2), went so far as to assert that “Universities should assume an explicit responsibility for facilitating growth”. Whilst recognising that “Universities (already) make a major contribution to the economy of the North East” the 2013 Adonis Review (3) called on the four local institutions not only to expand but also to play a direct role in increasing the percentage of local school leavers going onto University

All well and good; however, we also need to recognize that our universities face unprecedented challenges. Government funding is declining and, like the private sector, they are now expected to make their own way in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Funding regimes make it difficult for them to finance pro bono activities or to resource proper engagement with the regional development agenda. Ultimately, our universities can best help to generate economic growth locally through being excellent at what they do. In that sense they are no different to our great local businesses, like SAGE, Greggs and Nissan. Yes, they still receive significant public funding and yes they can (and should) make a distinctive contribution in areas such as innovation and social inclusion; however, the public sector is increasingly unwilling to pay the University ‘piper’ and it therefore has to accept that it will be less and less able to call the tune. Many institutions have the scars on their backs from short-term political agendas that ended in failure or were superseded by the next ‘big thing’ Also, top down, ‘big’ ideas have tended to end in tears.

In the early 2000s, for example, the idea of a ‘University of the North East’ was mooted as an answer to the merger of the University of Manchester and UMIST and the failed initiative to glue together London’s Imperial and UCL. For sure, there might have been some cost benefits from combining departments and back office functions; however, far from turning the region into a world-renowned centre of academic excellence and boosting the area’s economy, the merger proposal risked diluting the brand value of some of our most important regional assets. As many successful businessmen know, big ticket ‘glamour’ mergers rarely realise the synergies claimed for them.

Each of the four institutions has a clear and distinctive branding in the minds of students and academics alike. Northumbria has a great reputation for design (Sir Jonathan Ive of Apple is an alumnus), Newcastle has a renowned medical school and strength in the life sciences. Sunderland provides world class training in pharmacy, education and sports sciences. Durham ranks alongside Oxbridge at the top of the league tables in arts and humanities. No, much better to focus on a programme of incremental ‘bottom up’ action, designed to strengthen each of our universities, facilitate collaboration where it makes sense and build up the links with businesses large and small.

A Plan of Action

Here – in no particular order – is my ‘to do’ list!

1.       Consolidate and strengthen joint commercialisation efforts or create a jointly funded and run tech transfer operation, sponsored by local businesses;

2.       Collaborate on a combined ‘boot camp’ programme open to both staff and students alike to encourage more innovative spin-outs and encourage graduate retention in the Region;

3.       Develop a new joint initiative with business to encourage secondments, work experience and internships with local businesses;

4.       Create a NELEP Business – University working group looking to exploit collaborative opportunities, bridge the cultural divide and share best practice on an on-going basis;

5.       Use alumni databases to run joint promotional campaigns for the Region. Graduates of our four universities can be our greatest ambassadors and cheerleaders;

6.       Create an annual ‘innovation fair’ where the four universities come together to showcase their research and technology to regional SMEs as well as to potential inward investors

Work is already being done in many of these areas, but they all offer opportunities for our universities to engage with business and work more effectively together without sacrificing the individual strengths and distinctiveness that are essential to their success.

Oh, and yes! I also have a big idea (and I hope our Vice-chancellor will forgive me for sticking my head above the parapet – this really is an unofficial personal view only!). How about Durham and Newcastle coming together to create new ‘greenfield’, state-of-the-art science research facilities based on complementary strengths? You only have to spend an hour or two in Cambridge, or at the new Crick Institute in London’s King’s Cross to see what I’m talking about (not to mention what’s going on in the Middle East and South East Asia). The stakes are getting ever higher and there is a real danger that the northern universities are left behind in the research ‘arm’s race’ as Government focuses more and more of its research investment in fewer and fewer centres of excellence. What a statement of intent that would be for the North East innovation agenda!



By Dave Nicholson, Director, The Ideas Mine and Cooperative and Mutual Solutions

Despite their differences over Europe, one thing the Prime Minister and Michael Gove agree on is the need for prisons to become places of rehabilitation –

‘Prisons are not playing their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should’[1]

A few years ago Hexham MP Guy Opperman suggested a way forward when he asked

‘Why can’t you have a Charity running a prison or a church/community coming together to take charge and turn around low grade prisoners?... If hospitals can be transformed by Foundation status, then why cannot a prison? If educational charities like Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) or the Harris Foundation can run state comprehensive schools open to all, then why could they not run a prison?’[2]

The Prime Minister echoed Opperman by calling for ‘bids for new prisons from those charities and others who wish to work with specific types of offender’ and announcing that ‘We are going to bring the academies model that has revolutionised our schools to the prisons system’[3].

Our colleague Cliff Mills explains in an accompanying article how  foundation status for prisons  based on membership could work: staff, service users and local communities taking charge and turning prisoners around.  

In this article we show why such a membership model is so important – why prison staff, prisoners themselves, their families and local communities all have an active role to play in successful and sustained rehabilitation.

This is not simply about individual offenders stopping offending. It’s much more about building and re-building the positive pro-social relationships that will nurture and sustain a law-abiding lifestyle – relationships with prison staff, prisoners’ family and friends, employers, and the communities to which they will return when they are released. In rehabilitation we really are ‘all in it together’

So what rehabilitation services would enable prisons ‘to play their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should?’

Individual services – ensuring the quality of relationships between all prison staff and prisoners. The motivation for prisoners to change emerges in, and from, collaborative relationships with staff; people they can get on with and respect; who treat them as individuals; are genuinely caring; who place them at the centre of the change process, identifying jointly what’s needed to change and how, rather than just seeking responses to staff-defined problems.

This is of particular importance in the initial assessments of prisoners and sentence planning. It involves recognition that there is no single method or means of intervention that suits the rehabilitative needs of everyone. It also requires a recognition that family circumstances – whether providing the informal support, stability and security that facilitate rehabilitation, or contributing to the chaos, stress and trauma often underpinning offending in the first place – need to be addressed. For prisons to ‘play their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should’ they will need to find ways of working on prisoners’ relationships outside prison, particularly with their families. This is potentially a radical change in the role of prison staff – working outside as well as inside the prison to rehabilitate the prisoners in their custody.

The same applies to Circles of Support and Accountability[4] which provide a readymade supportive community ofvolunteers and professional staff for those sex offenders who have no pro-social relationships in the community to come back to. Crucially, Circles also provide supervision and could be used more widely with offenders whose social isolation could lead to reoffending after release.

Group services – bringing prisoners together to shape and deliver prison rehabilitation services. Current approaches to group work in prison focuses on cognitive behaviour therapy addressing individual ‘criminogenic needs’. However, to be effective, rehabilitation requires the development of new supportive social networks as well.

Mutual aid groups are of particular importance here, not least in the addictions recovery movement (Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are notable examples) and recovery in a mental health context. Given the prevalence of mental ill-health and addiction in the prison population, prisons should actively support the co-design and co-implementation of such mutual aid-based services in order ‘to play their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should.’

Collective services – practices and strategies that involve and produce outcomes that benefit whole communities, rather than just individuals or groups of prisoners. Examples include prisons playing their part in ensuring that prisoners and the communities to which they will return have access to sustainable and good quality employment and accommodation – two of the key drivers of sustained rehabilitation.

Increasing numbers of prisons are looking at developing their own social enterprises which provide both rehabilitative training and employment in custody. Crucially, on release, these enterprises contribute to the economic development and regeneration of the run-down communities to which the majority of prisoners will return.

The same could apply to accommodation. Why can’t prisons set up their own construction and property companies to renovate empty properties and build new housing to provide good quality affordable housing for their prisoners on release as well as for the inadequately housed communities to which they will return? In the process, they will provide rehabilitative training and employment – two of the key processes which reduce recidivism.

But who will pay for all this? There is no new public money likely to be available for the foreseeable future so prisons will have to find additional income streams ‘to play their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should’.  As we’ve seen, prison-owned or co-owned social enterprises can provide rehabilitative training and employment. If these enterprises were developed at sufficient scale they could also provide the additional income streams needed to pay for new prison rehabilitation services. Prison governors may have a number of other ideas about how to use their physical and human resources to generate income, and reduce dependency on taxpayer funding. What’s more there’s nothing new in this – if local authorities can gain additional income by owning commercial businesses (eg Manchester Airport is owned by the ten Greater Manchester Authorities) then why can’t prisons?

Prisoner rehabilitation is not a service that can be delivered to prisoners as passive recipients. As we have seen, it needs the active participation of prisoners themselves, prison staff and the relational networks of individuals and organisations with whom they are involved. To use public service jargon, rehabilitation is‘co-produced’. Our argument is that such collaborative relationships are best structured in membership organisations if they are to be effective in co-producing successful and sustainable rehabilitation and as Cliff Mills argues in his accompanying article, the proposed reforms provide precisely this opportunity for prisons.

We want to conclude with a proven example of membership-based social enterprises providing employment and training and funding their own rehabilitation services.

Membership-based, co-produced social enterprises which support social integration and prisoner rehabilitation have gained popularity [CM1] in Europe and North America, but have yet to be properly explored in the UK. But they provide a useful source of learning for this country in an economic and political climate of reduced public spending, insufficient work programmes in prison, and a lack of employment on release. Not only do they provide employment for prisoners in custody and in the community when they are released, their membership base itself provides the structure forexactly the sort of relational networks that support rehabilitation.

Dr Elizabeth Weaver of the University of Strathclyde, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Social Policy specialising in Criminology and Criminal Justice Social Work, shows how the cooperative culture and relational environment of these ‘social cooperatives’, is as important as the provision of paid work in contributing to prisoner rehabilitation. They provide holistic and individualised resettlement support for both prisoners and ex-prisoners and their families, a range of support with financial assistance, family mediation, access to legal support, education and training and a wide range of other resettlement services. [5]

All this is made possible by the prisoners, ex-prisoners, their families and professional support workers all being members of the Social Cooperative and the Cooperative’s commercial activities funding the additional support.

In Italy, where Social Cooperatives have developed to the greatest extent, prisons are largely just responsible for the security and custodial elements of running a prison. But they play ‘their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should’ by contracting out employment, training, education and other rehabilitation and resettlement services to these Social Cooperatives.

Our argument is that this could happen in the UK as well through member-based foundation status, but also by prisons  taking the lead in setting  up social cooperatives and playing their part as members in rehabilitating offenders as they should’ in their own social cooperatives co-owned and led by prisons.

Northern Education

The Importance of education within the North East

The North East of England is increasingly described as lagging behind the rest of the UK with regard to education. The simple question I am posing is do we care less about the education of children than the rest of the country?

A while ago I was asked by my granddaughter ‘Granddad, how did I learn to talk?’ As I was thinking of the answer she said ‘I bet it is really complicated and hard’.

We made education complicated and hard because we like appearing clever. Education as a topic is not right up front in our north eastern mentality.

When I go to a major bookshop in Newcastle education is hidden away and when I look at education books they look really boring. Few education books are displayed in the shop window and few become best sellers. I find this odd as we know more about the process of learning than at any time in our history. The trouble is that education is found all over the place – in psychology, management studies, economics, philosophy and religion. In fact, education is so deep into everything that we forget it’s there. At the moment there is a British Space Man living on a Space Station. He is now beginning to realise that the simple necessity of having oxygen to breath is quite a thing. Of course, this attitude to education books is not simply restricted to the north east. It is the same in every general bookstore throughout the country.

Sometimes I wish we could close every school and university in the North East. Just for one year. Take the oxygen out of our society. Then after twelve months ask people if they noticed. I hope they might realise that something was missing.

We all know learning will drive our future and yet when I visit the education section in the Newcastle bookshop it is a sad and forgotten place. When I go on ‘education safari’ and discover the lost shelf of education I find it full of books whose sole intention is to talk about education and at the same time destroy our love of learning.

Our attitude to education

So when I hear politicians say ‘Education Education Education’ I am even more confused. Education has ceased to be about learning – it is about something else.

Our attitude to education can be compared to how we dealt with the telephone. Before smart phones owned by smart people we built bright red phone boxes. We had telephone ‘operators’ and if we needed to contact someone we had to get to a telephone box or a house with a phone. Today phone boxes are dead. This was a paradigm shift. No one spotted the implications of the mobile phone.  And yet our education system designed in the analogue age continues, untouched by the digital age.

When I enter a modern operating theatre in the Freeman hospital I am struck by the dramatic difference between the butchery of 19th century medicine and modern technological surgery.

We have long since stopped studying dead brains on a dissecting table. We can watch on a TV monitor the electrical activity taking place within a living brain.  What we can see today is more mind blowing than anything we could see on the slab of an operating theatre. When I enter a classroom today, very little has changed over the last one hundred years. A modern patient would be horrified at the thought of being taken through a process similar to that of a 19th century operating theatre. Why then do politicians, and indeed parents, hark back to the past, ‘when we were taught properly, ‘in the traditional way’?

When I was standing in the queue at Buckingham Palace about to be awarded the CBE, in front of me was an MP, about to be knighted. When I explained I was a teacher. He then, without invitation, extolled the benefits of being caned. “It never did me any harm.”  “Neither did using leeches to cure the plague”, was my response. Those were the last words he may have remembered before being tapped on his shoulder by a sword.

So 4G Technology, 3D computer aided design, virtual reality should be blowing our education system out of the water. Yet we continue with a system designed in an age when instruction was dominant and chalk and slate were king. The ‘good old days’ are still considered good today.

Scarily we also believe that if we test a child at seven it is a predictor for how he or she will achieve at seventy-seven. We know all about the child who left Germany in the 1930s. He did not speak until he was four. He did not read until he was seven. When he was asked years later why he did not speak he said that he was still trying to work out the correct question to ask!  If Albert Einstein was educated within our modern education system, he would have been designated as having special needs and the school would probably have been concerned about his impact on their league position.

The importance of learning

We all know we learn best from experience, through interaction with real time situations. So rather than take our children for a walk in the woods, we watch Peppa Pig going on a picnic.  So why do we continue with traditional classroom practices? We bring children up to be intelligent in a world which we make unintelligible.

I once took a group of children to visit the Roman Wall. As the bus passed by the remains of the wall I decided to check out the back of the bus. As I walked up the aisle one of my more interesting children whispered – “Don’t look out of the window. He might ask you a question.”  

Our job is to open windows to the world. Unfortunately, many of the new leaders in education want to close windows to the world or at least reduce visibility.  When I was interviewed, at the age of 18, for Westminster College, Oxford I was asked about my favourite books. I mentioned, ‘1984’  ‘Brave New World’ and  Fahrenheit 451. At the time these were not considered to be acceptable literature. Needless to say I wasn’t accepted.

The most influential books on my career in education have been Paulo Friere’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, Edward Deming’s ‘Out of the Crisis’ and Howard Gardner’s’ ‘Frames of Mine: The Theory of Multiple Intelligence's. Books certainly not on the list of advised reading by Ministers.

The third challenge is to encourage our children to look beyond the local area, and understand there is a world of opportunity across the Tyne, the Wear and the Tees.

In February 2016 I spoke at a conference in Manchester. After I had spoken one headteacher announced that his main objective was to ensure children could understand a preposition and the fundamentals of grammar. Another announced that he ‘didn’t care about world peace’.

I can understand Jesus getting a bit cheesed off when after he had delivered the sermon on the mount the pharases asked him what were his quantifiable objectives and would what he was saying push the Hebrew nation up the league tables.

Like someone who can understand the component parts of a rifle, some only understand the working of small and discreet parts of the whole system. Unfortunately, they don’t understand the sum of the parts.  Worse still they don’t understand what they are firing at and why.

The education challenge

Let us consider the outcomes of our wonderful education system.

One critical outcome is that the gap between the rich and poor has become more and more extreme. 

Education, like television, rather than open a window on the world, allows the poorest in our society to see what it is like to be mega rich.  I know most people may think differently but certain forms of travel narrow the mind.  Just watch ‘goggle box’. A programme about different groups of people and their response to television. Television is not educating them. It is confirming their own fixed views of the world.

We look at our children within the north east and we know that the gap between the schools which take the poorest of the poor is widening by the minute compared with the schools which take the more fortunate. We know this is happening. We blame the headteachers, the schools, the parents and even the children. We talk about ‘closing the gap’ but we know we have designed a system which deliberately and coldly widens the breach between the successful and unsuccessful.

We also know our children are faced with significant changes. Like the disappearance of coal in the north east, oil may no longer be important. One third of our lives will be in post occupation retirement.  According to Stephen Hawking artificial intelligence will take over from human intelligence. Women procreate without men, sea levels are rising, ethnic and religious cleansing continues at a pace, world wide pandemics are a scary reality, mass population exodus is a major issue for our time. The people who will face these issues are sitting in our classrooms today.

Learning to learn

Our children need more than academic studies, the Education Baccalaureate and ‘a broad and balanced curriculum’.  Being clever is not enough. Being clever has never been enough.  They will need to learn how to learn, to adapt, adopt and continually improve. Knowing the passive tense and the 100 best works of English literature is only useful if they are aids to continual improvement and happiness.

Adaptability, based on transferable skills, will be essential. They will need to be enterprising as well as compassionate. To put it simply they will have to do far better than we have ever done.

So what are we saying at the moment? The cry is about under-performance of our teachers. The odd thing is every advanced economy in the world is also saying that teachers have suddenly started to underachieve.

So are we announcing that our Local Authorities, our Academy Sponsors, our FE Colleges, the Department for Education are all failing?

I visited Machu Pinchu in Peru last summer. This was the Inca Capital built around 1450. The area was prone to earthquakes. The Incas had worked out that if they designed buildings in a certain way with windows and doors which sloped inwards and blocks that were laid together in a particular design their cities would last for hundreds of years and would withstand earthquakes which flatten our modern cities. An Inca had the intellectual curiosity to understand the impact of earthquakes and design a solution which would last for a thousand years.

This Inca was the archetypal teacher, sitting on a mountain surrounded by children who would have joined in the simple, but ever so profound, question of how do we survive in world which we don’t understand?

The simple point is this. Learning is a consequence of thinking. It’s a simple and profound truth. Repeat it to yourself in the Pub, or in the Council Chamber when you next debate the institutional arrangements for education! Thinking – not simply instruction.

Understand the difference between education and instruction.  Consider the difference between sex education and sex instruction. Sex education should stimulate young people to think about how they deal with relationships and situations which they may encounter in the future. Sex instruction is a whole different ball game.

Here is the story of my encounter with the French language.  At the age of eleven I was deliriously excited to learn French. After sitting in a class and learning about Toto and Madame Lepine in the Jardins of Luxembourg and conjugating French verbs I was totally turned off.  I decided that I was not a linguist. Many years later, in my twenties I had met Marie Therese Rascopp from Germany. Speaking a foreign language suddenly became important to me.  I attended Workers Education Association classes twice a week and learned German. Within a year I was reasonably fluent in German and being interviewed on German TV. The bottom line is learning has to do with a hunger to make sense of something. Whether it be earthquakes or German girlfriends. The whole brain, including the emotions, has to be engaged. If you separate emotion from intellect, you court disaster.

At an early stage I came to realise that learning and schooling are not synonymous. Our neural structures and our inherited predispositions predate schooling by at least 29,500 years.

I love the excitement of learning. I am in love with the sight, smell and sounds of learning, but I am also frustrated by the institutional hurdles that get in the way of powerful learning.

Education Leaders who care about the whole system

I love being part of the education whole but I also continually feel uncomfortable to have some oversight of a system. which I may not fully understand. In order to improve a system, we must understand a system. It is always interesting to listen to the speeches of politicians, who describe the ‘brain drain’ of our teachers to other countries. How often do they properly   analyse the system they have designed and consider how it may be contributing to the loss of our talent. For example to what extent are the recent changes in teacher training, school inspection and curriculum design contributory factors   leading to the loss of our talent. I am not saying Ofsted or the English Baccalaureate are causing the departure of young teachers, but it is unacceptable for those who are a designers of the system to not accept some responsibility for the outcomes of the system.

In the north east we have a brain drain........ to other parts of the country.

One of my favourite programmes on TV is Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Even Sherlock never walked into a room and saw everything. He only saw what he was looking for. We are developing a sense of educational autism amongst our school leaders. They only see what they are looking for. National figures who should know better seem to see ‘failing schools’, ‘failing pupils’ existing in ‘failing regions’. When they talk about the lack of good mathematics and English teachers they do not see their own part in the system which creates such a shortage. Even worse they cannot see the system, because they are not looking beyond their own narrow perspective.

Learning is about making connections between the known and the new. It is a highly reflective activity that is about personal and continuous improvement. The question I would ask our national education leaders who have  recently criticised the standards in the north east is what have  they learned since they have been in post. Have they changed their perspectives or are they reinforcing the narrow perspective they have held from the beginning?

Are our schools places that encourage reflection?  Do young minds formulate hypotheses that link a study of history with, for instance, the issues of global warming with economic instability, with matters of equity and sustainability as well as their own potential earning capacity.  Do our education leaders understand the link between the higher education supply chain of graduates, salaries, inspection and league tables, as well as their own learning capacity?

Whilst travelling around Peru I visited the grave of Perez, the Conquistador who wanted to destroy Inca culture for the sake of the Catholic faith.  When I look at the Inca temples, statutes and art that was deliberately destroyed by the catholic fundamentalists, understandably I made the link with the actions of the ‘So Called Islamic State’.

THAT is what the world needs from education. The ability to see the big picture, the understanding of the relationships within the big picture and how learning can improve the world we live in is essential.

If we are unable to understand the whole picture and how the system works then all of us, politicians, civil servants, everyone – will have failed disastrously. Cleverness will never be enough; in fact, it could be dangerous. Our country desperately needs creativity, and the ability to think holistically and ethically. We have to understand that dynamic leadership understands the need for rational planning as well as chaotic creativity. Great leaders engage with both. Poor leaders simply plan and bad leaders simply think.

United in our approach to learning

Since I was born in 1945 there has been a tension. Is education about content, or is it about process? For too long the pendulum has swung rapidly from side to side. Political positions in the north east have been, and even now, are being staked out.

Going back to my favourite then – hospital operations.  I suspect when I was under the knife for bowel cancer my thoughts were about what was being done to me and also how it was being done. I was also slightly concerned about the outcome- would I live? After I decided I would live my thoughts then turned to my quality of life.

Great surgeons and great education leaders are concerned about process, content, outcomes and impact on the quality of life for young people. Leaders who tell me not to bother about the morale of teachers and children, as long as the results are good, do not understand education. Equally those who talk about the love of learning at the expense of outcomes are equally limited.

Neither polarity is good enough. Billions have been poured into research into the origins of the universe and the relationship between space and time.  We now need to invest in educationalists who are searching for a more unified theory of learning an ‘education theory of everything’. Perhaps my part in the system is to encourage someone to take up the mantle of being the Stephen Hawkins of schools. Is anyone out there?

The 10 key challenges in the North East

To conclude may I offer 10 key challenges to all of us within the north east.

  1. In an area which values heritage and tradition challenge the status quo - welcome innovation.
  2. Be ready to accept the often low starting point for many of our children and believe we can do something about it.
  3. Understand that we are all responsible for the education, politicians, teachers, parents, business etc. Join forces to transform the system.
  4. Design a curriculum for a new future, not the past
  5. Move away from simply instructing our children and teach them to think.
  6. Take up learning something new. Don’t be put off by the fact that the headteacher or college lecturer just looks like the one you used to hate when you were at school.
  7. Create a future for our children whilst also welcoming newcomers who bring new ways of ways of thinking.
  8. Have a new look at the North East and look for positives within our education system. Having found them build on them.
  9. Challenge our own narrow picture and expectations of education within the north east.
  10. Be objective about our own area, understand the big picture and properly assess our strengths and weakness

Our response to educational ‘failure’

So when we talk about a regional response to ‘educational failure’ let us start with ten clear guidelines

  1. Start from hope not from blame
  2. Start from understanding the education system in the region
  3. Learn to love learning
  4. Understand how learning can address the regional blockages to improvement
  5. It is everyone’s responsibility
  6. Harness every sector both public and private to address the needs of the north east
  7. Be clear about your part in the education system
  8. Do not return to ‘traditional solutions’, unless they work
  9. Apply modern technology to the process of learning
  10. Be good at what we do, caring is not enough

Les Walton (Bicycle Certificate – Honours) 



By Bob Paton

The North East devolution agreement can be the catalyst to help transform the region. It involves the transfer of significant powers for employment and skills, transport, housing, planning, business support and investment from central government to the North East. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity – and we must grab a hold of it.

Devolution will result in local government getting more devolved powers, however, to me it is much more than that as it also recognises the important role businesses have in transforming the region. This article focuses on the important role business has in the future development of our region, particularly in the areas of skills development

At the core of the region’s Strategic Economic Plan is the aim to create 100,000 “more and better jobs”.  However, our local authorities are currently dealing with major cuts to their budgets, meaning the public sector is unlikely to create the number of jobs needed. If we are successful in creating more and better jobs, those jobs will need to be created by the private sector.

Within our regional private sector economy we have some really strong sectors, including automotive, manufacturing, engineering, technology, energy, offshore, process and chemical, life sciences, retail, and business services. These sectors are at the core of our regional economy and for the region to be successful we need them to grow. However, growing these sectors requires more skilled staff. The challenge is therefore to create the supply of skilled staff to match the demand that is being created. 

For me the key to transforming our region will be to match our training, education and skills system to the economy we have. 

As a result, the section of the devolution agreement which is of most interest to me is around skills, as it has the potential to have the biggest transformational impact.

The ‘Human Capital Development’ section within the agreement aims to “create an integrated employment and skills system tailored to the specific needs of the area”. The achievement of that aim is exactly what the region needs to make it more successful. My view on this is that this means we do not need to be tied to the National Curriculum we should be allowed to create a curriculum that best matches the economy and skills required in the region.

I totally agree that we should support academic routes, however, I believe we should be providing more vocational and technical routes which are aligned to our regional economy.

The agreement then goes on to say it will “actively stimulate, promote and champion initiatives that seek to strengthen and deepen partnerships between education and business to provide a focus upon economically-driven activity, such as vocational training, apprenticeships and traineeships, experience of work, and enterprise learning”.
This can only be achieved if the business sector is fully engaged.

We don’t need to wait until the devolution agreement is fully in place — we can do this now!

We have lots of businesses already in the region who offer great opportunities to our young people but we need more — many more. And we have some very good schools, colleges, universities and training providers in the region, but there is no doubt we will have more. And they will be even better if there is more business engagement.

We want more businesses involved in the following:

  • More business leaders to become school, college or university governors
  • Providing career advice at schools, colleges and universities
  • Providing advice on course content/curriculum
  • Delivering lectures – we should also look at experienced workers moving from business to becoming teachers
  • Giving more young people relevant work experience opportunities
  • Providing more Traineeships
  • Creating more Apprenticeships
  • Taking on more Graduates
  • Delivering Enterprise learning sessions

There are a number of initiatives that are being progressed throughout the region which are helping in this transformation, I am going to highlight a few (there are many more!) that focus on linking business and education.

Gatsby, Career Advice Benchmarks

Following extensive global research Sir John Holman for the Gatsby Foundation has developed a new approach to improving career advice in schools. The approach is based on implementing eight benchmarks of good career guidance. At the core of these benchmarks are links to businesses and workplaces, and as a result bringing the world of work closer to pupils. It is great news that the implementation of these benchmarks is being trialed by a pilot in the region. If the pilot is successful we should be looking to roll this out throughout the region.

Studio West

A Studio School is a new approach to secondary education which is based on a real focus on work experience. In the West end of Newcastle we have Studio West, its focus is very much on bringing the world of work to its pupils. For example every Year 12 and Year 13 pupil gets two days, paid work experience – each week! This is a great initiative and really brings together business and education.
University Technical Colleges (UTCs)

UTCs are schools for 14 to 18 year old's which combine the national curriculum with a technical specialism. Between 14 and 16 the split is 60% national curriculum and 40% technical specialism. Between 16 and 18 those percentages are reversed. Within the region we have two UTCs approved for opening, one in South Durham focusing on engineering and one in Newcastle focusing on IT and Health Care Sciences. In my view we should have more UTCs in the region which are aligned to our economy.

Primary Inspiration through Enterprise (PIE)

A project which is focused at Primary schools, its aim is to engage, enlighten and educate primary age pupils to the exciting world of enterprise and bringing education to life through inspiration. Again a successful project which could be rolled out throughout the region.

We need to be the region that offers more of these opportunities than any other area in the UK to grow the number of skilled people working in thriving businesses. If we do that we will be successful in creating the “integrated employment and skills system” mentioned in the devolution agreement.

Our economy is growing and we have a demand for skilled staff. Let’s work together to ensure we can match the supply of skilled staff to the demand that is there.

We can only do that if we work together. We need to create a movement of programmes and activity that delivers the skilled people we need.




By Emeritus Professor, Ian Fells

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries the North East was the powerhouse of Great Britain. Charles Parsons, through his invention of the steam turbine, Merz and McLellan with their development of hydro power and a national distribution grid, followed by Joseph Swan’s invention of the electric light bulb, powered by the newly available electricity. The growth of coal mining to fuel the steam turbines and closely linked with this, the growth of the railways to transport the coal, where the Stephensons, father and son, played a pivotal role, all go to illustrate the central role played by the North East in electricity supply.

The remarkable entrepreneurial spirit which imbued the North East a hundred years ago is still with us in offshore engineering, subsea devices, military vehicles to clear mines, remote control equipment for use in decommissioning nuclear power stations and a host of examples in chemical engineering.

There is decline in development of the North Sea, the result of a volatile oil price and the actual depletion of oil and gas reserves.  In addition there is the decline in steel-making on Teesside. Consequently a large and skilled work force is available to take up new challenges, one of which could be nuclear power. As the government struggles to meet climate change targets which involves decarbonising the electricity supply (further bad news for oil and gas), we will have to expand our only predictable source of non-carbon electricity, nuclear power. This means not only replacing our current, ageing nuclear stations, the AGRs, but building new stations.  A switch to Small Nuclear Reactors (less than 300MW) for our future nuclear power could be an attractive development. They are factory-built, installed in an underground site, and have a build time of around 48 months or less, so that investors get a much faster return on capital than they do with a huge plant (1660MWe) like Hinkley Point C.

The nuclear supply chain in the North East is ideally placed to build SMRs but it will require imagination and drive to move into the SMR business.

And then there is the National Renewable Energy Centre; it was set up at Blyth in 2003 and works on the other carbon-free electricity generating technologies wind, solar and marine energy. It now has an international reputation and operates one of the largest blade test facilities in the world. NaREC has made a valuable contribution to the renewal of Port of Blyth through the last decade, establishing it as a centre for high-technology industry.

The Northern Powerhouse is already with us but ready to expand.