AN AWARD-WINNING children’s author has delivered a keynote speech at a Cumbrian education conference, dubbed as one of the biggest of its kind in northern England.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce, also a screenwriter and an actor, who wrote novels such as Millions along with upcoming title Runaway Robot, spoke at the Northern Lights conference at the University of Cumbria’s Fusehill Street campus yesterday.

The event was a day of debate, celebrating good practice and exploring the biggest issues faced by schools and educational figures across the region.

Staged by the University’s Institute of Education, the influential event was in partnership with St Ninian Catholic Federation, which runs St Margaret Mary’s and St Cuthbert’s Schools in Carlisle.

Along with keynote speeches, the conference also included sessions such as ‘Broad and Balanced’ exploring curriculum issues to a panel-led debate entitled ‘NorthernEd – powerhouse or poorhouse?’

Speaking after his lecture to staff and students, Frank said: “I’ve come to this event because as a children’s writer, you go to a lot of schools and you see the importance of reading for pleasure, which is a magic bullet.

“Children who read for pleasure tend to do really well in schools, but also really well in life as well, not necessarily all at school.

“You need to keep saying that message, because parents want the best of their kids, they’ll fork out for tuition, and move house to be near a better school.”

But Frank added: “Nothing works as well as a mum and dad reading to their kid.”

The conference saw a range of speakers from across the educational spectrum share their thoughts on the topic, and its impact regionally and nationally.

Jacky Kennedy, the headteacher at St Joseph’s Catholic High School in Workington, plus Ed Dorrell, deputy editor and head of content of the Times Educational Supplement, were among the speakers.

University vice chancellor, Professor Julie Mennell, said: “Education, we know, has the power to transform people’s lives, communities and countries. With power to spark passionate rhetoric and debate, education is never far from the headlines.

“From teacher training and retention, school accountability, inspections or raising standards and attainment, Northern Lights will shine a spotlight on the sector in a way never before witnessed here in Carlisle, the Great Border City where we have a rich heritage of providing quality teacher training and professional development.

“We are delighted to be working with the St Ninian Catholic Federation and proud to have hosted such an event here in Cumbria, where Charlotte Mason founded teacher education in Ambleside.

“We are in the business of possibility, empowering people to succeed so we welcome the opportunity to bring new thinking, skills and opportunity in this field for the benefit of the wider region and beyond.”

St Ninian Catholic Federation leaders Chris Wilkins, executive headteacher, and deputy headteachers Michael Merrick and Luke Denny are collaborating on the project with Ruth Harrison-Palmer, Kathryn Fox and Pete Boyd from the university’s Institute of Education.

The St Ninian team said: “The purpose of the event is to highlight successes but also the needs of an area that has long struggled to get the same attention as other parts of the country. The fact that children in the North have less chance of educational success than their peers in the South is a fundamental inequality we are determined to address.

“We hope that the conference can help develop discussion and networks to help drive that improvement and close the divide.

“We are proud to welcome so many voices from across the country, be these home grown or from further afield. It is an opportunity for academic discussion and debate to be a vehicle that allows professionals from the local area and all corners of the country to share best practice and build networks of excellent teaching and leadership.

“Closing the attainment gap and delivering the highest quality of education should be the aspirational target for all schools. We are hoping that this conference can be used by schools as an opportunity to be outward looking in their development, with the aim of ensuring success for all of our children regardless of their postcode or background.”

Nick Gibb, School Standards Minister, was due to speak at the event, but pulled out at the last minute due to business relating to Brexit in Westminster.