Closing a stark regional divide in the development of children before they are even five should be made a central test of the success of the Government's "Northern Powerhouse" initiative, a think-tank has said.
Research by the left-leaning IPPR found only 47% of children born in the poorest families in the north of England achieved a good level of early years development - in contrast to 59% who met the standard in London.
It proposed that bringing that up to the national rate should be one of 11 benchmarks for Chancellor George Osborne's flagship policy to boost regional economies.
Halving a 10.6% productivity gap between the North and the national average should be another indicator, it suggested in a report being launched by Labour former deputy prime minister John Prescott and MP Dan Jarvis in Sheffield.
IPPR North's annual survey also found the five northern city-regions have almost as many well-qualified individuals (3.6 million) as London does (3.7 million) - with demand for skilled workers set to increase.
Director Ed Cox said: "If the Northern Powerhouse is to drive national prosperity, these figures show the challenges it must overcome to become a reality.
"We will never become a powerhouse economy when our children and young people have such a poor start in life. It will take a generation of investment - not only in new railways and motorways, but in the 'human capital' of the north - in education and training, starting with the youngest.
"If the Northern Powerhouse is to be successful, economic powers must be devolved to all corners of the north to allow businesses and policymakers to develop an economy that supports more productive, resilient and sustainable growth: jobs that pay well, prosperity that is shared, and opportunities for all."
Other suggested benchmarks include:
:: Creating 600,000 new, good-quality jobs;
:: Closing the gap in the proportion of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs including English and maths;
:: Levels of investment in research and development matching those of the very best regions in Europe;
:: More than one-third of people feeling that they have a real say over what their local authority does;
:: Minimum 50% turnout at mayoral elections.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "Ensuring every child, regardless of their background, can fulfil their potential is part of this Government's core mission to extend opportunity to all.
"We know the first few years of a child's life are vital and evidence shows the better the childcare, the higher the quality of learning and development.
"Our early years pupil premium is giving providers extra funds to help young children from disadvantaged backgrounds and close the attainment gap.
"Our reforms and the hard work of schools has meant there are 250,000 more pupils in good or outstanding schools in the north since 2010.
"This has also been reflected in the latest GCSE results but we want that trend to continue which is why we are investing another £10 million to help high performing academy sponsors share their expertise with northern counterparts."