Rising to the education challenge in the rustic Bradford District

By Zahir Irani

Launched in 2003, the London Challenge shook up the capital’s secondary education system, transforming the worst performing schools in the country into the best in Britain. During the eight-year programme, the Department for Education invested heavily in leadership to raise standards, narrow the attainment gap and create more, good and outstanding schools. By all accounts, it was an outstanding success, raising the outcomes and life opportunities for many students.

“London’s education system has had rocket-boosters under it… while some schools in the North are still fighting for scraps,” the Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield told The Yorkshire Post. She said the success of the government-funded “opportunity areas” pilot scheme in Bradford, Doncaster and the North Yorkshire coast should be replicated across the region in a “relentless push for a rebalancing, which identifies the gaps and what needs to happen to close them”.

We are deeply concerned that COVID-19 is widening these gaps. Pre-pandemic, Bradford has been getting good marks. In the three years since the launch of the Bradford opportunity area, children’s reading, writing and maths scores at primary school level have increased by 16 per cent above the national average. We now have 6,000 more students who attend a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school as rated by Ofsted. We have created the equivalent of four employer encounters per secondary school pupil. Health teams are working with schools to improve maths and literacy through the “glasses in classes” project. And our schools have done some great work keeping children engaged during lockdown. Regional ambition doesn’t stop there: the University of Bradford is working to eliminate attainments gaps as part of its access and participation plan.

The scheme has some prominent business supporters. Will Richardson, senior partner at PwC in Leeds, said: “Extending the opportunity areas programme will undoubtedly help support the Government’s levelling up agenda and provide further foundation to ‘building back better’.” The professional services giant opened a new national assurance office in Bradford last year and is busy recruiting extra staff. This is proof that opportunity areas are having a wider impact.

Bradford won £1.7m in additional funding in July. This means we will be able to expand the opportunity area scheme from 14 to 19 schools, extend support for new and aspiring headteachers, widen the Bradford teacher recruitment and retention campaign, invest in maths tuition for year 11 pupils and increase support for parents of children with special needs. The extra funding is welcome of course, but we need more to do much more, especially to counter the impact of Covid-19. The council and charities like GiveBradford have been funding summer programmes and investing in IT equipment for young people, but more support is essential.

Anne-Marie Canning MBE, chair of the Bradford opportunity area, said: “Without a good education we are really losing the engine of social mobility and that is why education needs to be put as the top priority. It’s one of the great fallings of this current decade that children in the North aren’t getting a good enough shot at a decent life.” The Treasury is under incredible financial pressure at the moment as it looks for ways to pay for the pandemic, but we cannot afford to waste so much human potential and that requires a long-term commitment to Bradford, Yorkshire and the North. 

At the newly formed Bradford Economic Recovery Board, we are going to take a leading position on addressing this challenge. We need to connect and secure all residents with economic opportunity as this will provide every home with stability and ambition and raise aspirations and standards. We need to support businesses with access to talent and skills for jobs that exist now and, for those of the future in new and existing industries for the region to prosper where we can all be proud of the economic and social value created.

This pipeline starts in schools. Our curriculum needs to be fresh, relevant and stimulating. It needs to be future proof and equip young people with skills in emerging sectors. We must motivate and reward our teachers and make sure they are representative of our region and communities through being role models and motivators. And we need to support our leaders running our large and complex educational institutions to better manage increasingly scarce resources.

All these actions will help lift our education system and with it the prospects and ambitions of all the young people living in Bradford, many of whom will be among the hardest hit by the pandemic. London had the chance to change its worst-performing schools for the better. So should we, now.

• Professor Zahir Irani is Chairman of the Bradford Council Economic Recovery Board and Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Bradford. He Tweets at: @ZahirIrani1