CEO’s Blog: Is there a North/South divide in education?

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Fiona Spellman, Chief Executive of SHINE, examines if there is a North/South divide in education

Recent research conducted by the University of Durham makes for useful, and potentially sobering, reading for anyone who wants to close the attainment gap for children outside of London.

There is a prevalent narrative in education which contrasts the successes of London schools with the failures of schools in other regions, based on the disparity of outcomes for children when they leave. There is no doubt that children from disadvantaged backgrounds in London are outperforming their peers from other parts of the country, and that there has been a significant improvement in education outcomes in London over the past few decades which has not been matched by the same level of improvement elsewhere. However, as this latest research shows, it may be that the schools in places like the North of England actually need more help than blame.

The principal conclusion of the research is that schools in the North of England are not necessarily doing a worse job than their counterparts in London; they simply do not have an equivalent mix of children. The key factor which influences exam results is the proportion of pupils who are disadvantaged and the length of time for which they have been disadvantaged. Once you take into account the contextual differences between schools nationally, the North / South divide in relation to school effectiveness seems not to stack up.

The relationship between school effectiveness and intake is always fascinating to me, as the two seem more interlinked than many acknowledge. As schools improve, their intake will often become more affluent, and as schools decline in effectiveness, they become less and less attractive to prospective parents, thus making it more likely that they will end up with more disadvantaged pupils.

To say that schools in the North generally serve more disadvantaged cohorts does not mean that school effectiveness doesn’t matter. In my mind, it’s not a case of context or school effectiveness, but the interrelation between these two things which most determines results.

SHINE, the charity I lead, recently relocated out of London to focus its efforts on trying to reduce the attainment gap for children in the North of England. We took this step both because children in the North face greater levels of disadvantage, and because there are fewer other organisations here in a position to help do something about it.

There are teachers and schools all over the North of England who are working tirelessly to support the least advantaged pupils to achieve their best. They do so in difficult circumstances, demonstrating every day a passionate commitment to improving children’s life chances through education.

There is undoubtedly a North / South divide in the results that children achieve at school. However, it’s important to resist an overly simplistic narrative about the failure of Northern schools. As this research shows, the gap in achievement levels may be just as much about factors outside of school as what goes on inside.

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