Former Minister for Merseyside speaks at the International Business Festival in Liverpool and warns the Metro Mayors that devolution was in danger of failing without decisive action. Tony McDonough reports
Former Minister for Merseyside Lord Heseltine says the overall standard of education in the UK is a “disgrace” and bringing it up to scratch was the “great challenge of our time”.
Lord Heseltine was speaking at an ‘Urbanisation and Cities’ event during the International Business Festival in Liverpool, which 27,000 delegates from around the world are expected to attend over the next couple of weeks.
‘Heart of everything’
He told the audience at Exhibition Centre Liverpool that education was the key reinvigorating communities. He said: “At the heart of everything lies education – if we can educate people then we can liberate them.
“Many schools are a disgrace. We are 29th in the global league table of educational standards and that is simply not good enough. We have great schools and great universities but it is the trailing edge that holds back our economy.
“There is an acceptance of indifferent performance in many parts of the country, particularly in the North, and the elected Mayors needs to get involved in tackling that.”
Lord Heseltine’s address followed a panel discussion in front of the audience which included a number of elected regional Mayors from across England. Liverpool City Region and Greater Manchester Metro Mayors Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham took part.
And Lord Heseltine urged them to involve themselves in the education agenda even though it was strictly outside the remit set down by Government.
He added: “That doesn’t matter. They should be picking up the phone anyway and demanding to know what it going on in the schools.
“You can have any mix of face, class or income but you can still see great achievement in schools with greats heads and great teachers. Replicating those models in all schools is the great challenge of our time – it is fundamental in a competitive world.”
Lord Heseltine’s connection with Merseyside goes back almost 40 years. Following the Toxteth riots he led a task force to revitalise the economy and begin repairing the social fabric.
He produced a report entitled It Took A Riot and his philosophy was that the traditional top-down approach where the man from Whitehall came along and told people what to do was always doomed to fail. Instead, he believed it was necessary to empower people on the ground to create their own “ladders of aspiration”.
A second report he co-authored with Liverpool-born former Tesco chief executive, Sir Terry Leahy, was where the original idea for the business festival in Liverpool came about.
And in his speech on Wednesday he again railed against the idea of Government-knows-best centralism.
Turning again to devolution and the Metro Mayors, he said: “Because of Brexit the process of devolution has run out of steam. The Mayors need to make sure they are the champions of the devolution process because it will ultimately be judged by what they do.”
He explained there was a danger that if the £2bn pot set aside for devolution over five year was not properly spent to improve transport, housing and skills then the Government would snatch it back.
“It will go back to Whitehall and centralism will triumph – the Mayors must always remember that Whitehall is not on their side,” he said.