If you’re going to do something, do it properly

Jenny Moore

The good old north-south divide has been back in the media recently, with research from the Social Market Foundation (SMF) showing wide variation in GCSE performance between regions of England.

A lot of the media coverage focused on regional variations, but the SMF report also found persistent differences in outcomes in the last 30 years for pupils who are eligible for free school meals compared to pupils who are not. Department for Education data also tells us that northern schools have more pupils who are known to be eligible for free school meals than southern schools. One clear exception is in London, as the graph* below shows: from left to right, we see percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals in London, in the north and in the south.

For the record, south is the south east, south west and east of England (though I’m from just outside Glasgow, so to me anything south of Manchester is The South) and the north is north east, north west and Yorkshire and Humber. (Sorry Midlands.)

histogram of region and FSM percentage

However, London schools still outperform other regions in terms of GCSE results. These numbers are from the provisional data release for 2014-15, so may have changed slightly now the revised data has been released.

percentage of pupils getting 5Astar-C by region

Using Ofsted’s data on schools’ most recent inspection outcomes, you can see that London schools also outperform other regions in terms of Ofsted ratings. This difference is statistically significant, whereas there’s no difference between the north and south (excluding London). My colleague Alex has also written about this before for our blog.

Green is ‘outstanding’, yellow is ‘good’, orange is ‘requires improvement’, and black is ‘inadequate’. On the left you have London, then the north, then the south.

histogram of region and outcome proportion

The London Challenge is often trumpeted as the main reason for improvements in London schools. But research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) last September suggests that the story probably isn’t so clear cut: improvements in primary schools back in the mid-90s, for example, played a major role.

It’s clear that there has been a concerted effort to improve London schools and outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in the last 30 years – and it’s paid off, especially for disadvantaged pupils.

Interestingly, the LSE researchers also pick up on London’s status as an “economic powerhouse”. Along with improvements in London schools, the UK economy has become more driven by services which are often centred in London. This also means there’s a wealth of opportunities in London for schools to take advantage of, and I’m sure a trip to the British Museum is much more inspiring than what we had back in the day: a trip to the canal a 20-minute walk from our school. We didn’t even go to one of the cool bits like the Falkirk Wheel. Similarly, the opportunity to do work experience in the City seems vastly more riveting than in a pound shop in the local shopping centre.

The bit of canal we went to on our school trip

The cooler bit, aka the Falkirk Wheel

There might be a shift to decentralise the economy in the air – remember the “northern powerhouse”? I’m all for decentralising away from London, but I hope the plan isn’t to just build some shiny buildings in old industrial areas and then say the area has been “regenerated”. To me at least, that seems more about being able to say you’ve Done Something, rather than doing something which makes a lasting difference.

To give another true-life example, my hometown used to be a shipbuilding town, and its economy has never quite recovered since the industry declined in the area. It has been “regenerated” though; it now has some new street signs and traffic islands.

Admittedly, this has made the place look a bit nicer, but I doubt it will significantly change anything in the long run, let alone address the disparities in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils compared to their better-off peers.

Granted, genuine improvement – not surface changes – will take time. I believe it’s worth focusing on and doing it properly to get it right for disadvantaged pupils – in the north, as well as London.

*Graphs and statistics are all by Gwilym Lockwood.

Members of our school leader service can read more about closing the gap in primary schools and research into raising achievement in secondary schools on our website, while an article for our school governor members looks at monitoring and raising aspiration.

The Key is also holding a conference on Raising pupil achievement at primary level. Attend an in-depth workshop session and hear inspiring case studies from school leaders who have developed successful whole-school approaches to closing achievement gaps.

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