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A country divided? School achievement clearly shows a North-South gap

Posted by. Dr Jonathan Doherty
Posted on 03 May 2018


​​The debate around the school achievement gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers continues. This time, the issue is the north-south divide. Dr Jonathan Doherty, Senior Lecturer in Education at Leeds Trinity University, discusses what can be done to improve northern schools and close the attainment gap. 

Former Chancellor George Osborne, is calling for 430,000 more northern pupils to be able to attend 'good' or 'outstanding' schools, as in the south of England by 2022. He presents his case to the Commons Education Select Committee and argues that the existence of such a north-south divide in education means that too many young people from the north, and especially those from disadvantaged homes are falling behind other parts of the UK.

There is hard evidence to support this unfortunately. Northern secondary school pupils fall one GSCE grade on average behind the rest of the UK. Average GSCE scores across eight subjects in 2016/17 among teenagers living in the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber, was 45.1, compared to a national average of 46.1 and an average of 48.6 in the London area. 

Children in London who are eligible for free school meals, which is the indicator used to show disadvantage, are twice as likely to go to university as those in the North, and 40 per cent more likely to achieve well in Maths and English at GCSE. London has the highest proportion of outstanding schools, overall and in its most deprived wards – and the lowest number of schools rated satisfactory (requires improvement). Lack of qualifications means young people getting fewer jobs, a less skilled work force overall and the stark reality that schools in the North "could do better".

Other data found that too many secondary schools in the North suffered poor leadership and governance. Boosting attainment of pupils in the North is also likely to be a top priority for the new Education Secretary, Damian Hinds.

The establishment of what is known as the Northern Powerhouse was intended to change all that. This was a move to bring together cities like Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester to be a more unified force geographically, economically and educationally. It hasn't quite happened yet but the recently published report, Educating the North. Driving ambition across the Powerhouse, highlights the potential of such partnership working.

It makes five recommendations.

  • To have greater Government investment into Early Years;
  • Targeted and better use of Pupil Premium money going into schools to support disadvantaged children;
  • The establishment of a Northern Powerhouse Schools Improvement Board; simplifying the Regional Schools Commissioner areas in the North;
  • and every business to mentor on careers and enterprise skills the same number of young people as they employ. 

Bold proposals but perhaps the answer. Creating a more skilled workforce would allow 850,000 extra jobs and could generate an additional £100 billion for the UK economy by 2050. 

There is work to be done, not just in schools. Transport networks, children's services, careers services and business all have a part to play, but with a concerted focus and adequate funding, the benefits would be a reduction of the attainment gap and the enhancement of the life chances for all young people.