Research by think tank IPPR North has found that less than 45% of the poorest children in the North East achieve a good level of development in their early years – significantly behind London where 59 percent meet the standard.
The think tank identifies closing the gap in early years achievement as one of 11 benchmarks against which progress of the Northern Powerhouse should be assessed to benefit people living and working in the North. 55 percent of young people across the North attain the standard of five GCSEs at A* to C, including English and Maths – but this falls to only a third (33 percent) for those receiving free school meals.
It also notes a "productivity gap" whereby the North's economic productivity trails the national average by more than 10%, as well as a "skills gap", with the demand for skilled workers in the North forecast to increase significantly by 2022.
In response, North East Lib Dem spokesman Greg Stone said
"IPPR's findings illustrate the challenge facing the North East, and particularly by the Labour council leaders and elected metro mayor under devolution arrangements. To succeed and flourish, there needs to be significant raising of educational attainment and vocational skills training, and Lib Dems in the region will be seeking to scrutinise the political leaders of the region as they set out exactly how they will narrow this gap. They have now been awarded new powers under devolution, but so far there is a marked absence of a detailed policy programme and action plan, and this urgently needs to be addressed.
"Lib Dems recognised the importance of investment in early years education in the previous Coalition government and prioritised the extension of nursery education, universal free school meals for under 7s, and the introduction of Pupil Premium funding to provide extra help targeted at those who most need it.
"In our view these measures will have a significant impact when the children who have benefited take their GCSEs in the next few years, and we hope that this will translate into an upturn in educational attainment. We have already seen that the Schools Challenge process in London has paid significant dividends in improving outcomes in inner London schools, and we feel there is a clear case for expanding an equivalent programme in North East schools. However, we can see that the current Government's policy of cutting tax credits is likely to mean more North East children - nearly 200,000 in total - will be growing up in poorer households, limiting their opportunities.
"The devolution plans for the region must build on the foundations the Lib Dems have put in place to target early years and social mobility, augmented by a renewed focus on educational attainment and on progress into vocational education and training, if we are to secure the well-educated well-skilled workforce the North East's economy and businesses desperately need. It is vital we get this right if we are to ensure greater prosperity and employment across the region in the future.