This year’s GCSE results for England and Wales are expected to confirm a widening north-south education gap, prompting a prediction that the government will miss one of its key levelling-up targets if it continues to hold back pupils in the north of England.
A coalition of school leaders, charities and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has written to the Conservative leadership candidates urging them to commit to fixing growing regional disparities in education.
They predicted Thursday’s results would show 24.4% of pupils in the north-east of England achieving GSCE grade seven or above, compared with 37.8% in London. The forecast followed “stark” regional disparities that were exposed in A-level results last week, with the top grades falling faster in the north-east compared with the south-east.
The joint letter told Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss that the government’s levelling up target of increasing exam standards in the worst performing areas by a third by 2030 would not happen unless “place-based challenges, such as health and housing” were also addressed at the same time.
The letter by the Northern Powerhouse, Schools North East and the education charity Shine, said: “Regional disparities in attainment are getting worse, not better.”
It added that the disproportionate effects of the coronavirus pandemic had worsened existing regional disadvantages, and that failures in implementation of the national tutoring programme, which is aimed at making up for lost learning during the pandemic, had only exacerbated the problem. Only 58.8% of target schools in the north-east benefited from the programme compared with 96.1% of those targeted in the south-east and 100% in the south-west, the letter said.
Labour accused the government of failing children in deprived areas. The shadow schools minister, Stephen Morgan, said: “Young people receiving results have worked incredibly hard, but 12 years of Conservative governments has left a legacy of unequal outcomes that are holding back kids and holding back communities.”
Labour said that last year in Knowsley, a deprived area of Liverpool, fewer than 40% of pupils achieved a GCSE pass in English and maths, compared with more than 70% of pupils in affluent areas such as Trafford in Greater Manchester, Kingston upon Thames in south-west London, and Buckinghamshire.
Henri Murison, the chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and co-signatory of the letter, said despite the government’s rhetoric about levelling up, its record in office had only increased regional differences.
“The government was doing more on educational disparities in the poorest areas before levelling up was invented than they are now,” he said.
“The mismanagement of the national tutoring programme and issues with the laptop scheme, have created an inbuilt problem across all year groups. That means we will get even worse outcomes in the north of England than we’ve been getting for the last 10 years.”
Murison accused the Department for Education (DfE) of “deliberately levelling down … by abolishing opportunity areas and replacing them with central budgets with no local control and no guaranteed funding. This is a scandal for individual children and for families in those deprived neighbourhoods.”
He said: “The reason A-levels, and we expect GCSEs, have been so disappointing across the north of England, is because the most disadvantaged kids in society have been failed by this government. Someone needs to be held accountable for that.
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“The incoming chancellor, should simply bypass the DfE entirely when it comes to this problem and spend the money directly in local places.
“Before the pandemic there was already a big gap in grade 7 and above between London and the north-east, Yorkshire, and the north-west. We are predicting that that will increase significantly in Thursday’s results.”
The quality of teaching in the north was not the problem, Murison added. “In the north-east of England, 10% of kids in schools are on free school meals the whole time they are in secondary school. In outer London it’s only about 2%. If the schools in London had to teach the kids in the north-east, they would get very different results.”
The DfE said: “We have set out a range of measures to help level up education across England, including targeted support both for individual pupils who fall behind and whole areas of the country where standards are weakest. This is alongside £5bn to help young people to recover from the impact of the pandemic, including £1.5bn for tutoring programmes.
“Pupil Premium funding is also increasing to more than £2.6bn in 2022-23, whilst an additional £1bn is allowing us to extend the recovery premium for the next two academic years – funding which schools can use to offer targeted academic and emotional support to disadvantaged pupils.”