Post-code lottery in education is not inevitable

By Simge Kartav

The North-South divide is not only apparent in the economy but it has also become evident in education. This was once again highlighted by a new Commission launched by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) last week. The cross-party initiative is examining the causes and effects of inequality in education at primary and secondary levels in England and Wales.

Initial research from the Commission paints a grim picture - inequality in educational achievement between regions has grown over the past thirty years. There are significant variations in terms of GCSE performance between regions, with over 70% of pupils in London achieving 5 good GCSEs compared to 63% in Yorkshire & Humber. In fact, these regional differences in attainment are already apparent by the end of primary school and are observable even when controlling for other factors such as ethnicity and income.

None of this is surprising news. An Ofsted report published in late 2015 found that children in the North and Midlands are much less likely to attend a good or outstanding secondary school than those in the rest of the country. Of the 173 failing secondary schools in the country, 130 are in the North and Midlands and 43 are in the South. Moreover, compared with children and young people in the rest of the country, those living in the North and Midlands are four percentage points behind in achieving five GCSEs grades A* to C, including English and mathematics.

All of these findings lead to a question the SMF is addressing with its commission: why is there a post-code lottery in education? Can the lower performance in the North and Midlands be accounted for either by poverty or by differences in school funding? If it can, why do some of the more deprived parts of London outperform deprived areas in other parts of the country?

For example, Knowsley in Merseyside has six secondary schools. Out of the five inspected by Ofsted none is currently good or outstanding. More broadly, only 61% of pupils in the Liverpool Combined Authority area are in good or outstanding secondary schools, which means that choices for young people outside Knowsley are also limited. In comparison, seven of nine secondary schools in Barking and Dagenham in East London were ranked by Ofsted ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. Further, if parents in Barking and Dagenham wanted to send their children to neighbouring areas for education they would have many ‘outstanding’ schools nearby. As a result, there is a strong contrast between the educational attainments of these two areas; last year in Knowsley only 37% of pupils achieved 5+ A*-C GCSEs (including English and Maths) whereas in Barking and Dagenham this figure was 54%. This shows how two deprived areas can provide a very different quality of education, but begs the question: if many London schools face similar or worse challenges of deprivation than do other parts of the country, what accounts for London’s relative success in education terms?

According to Ofsted Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, “what sparked the ‘education revolution’ in London was a collective decision by heads, local politicians, chief executives and MPs that they would refuse to accept underperformance and insist on high expectations for all”.

Many commentators often cite the London Challenge as the reason for the success of education in London schools. The London Challenge was a political intervention by the Labour Government to work with the most deprived schools in London and it proved to be a success. Research from the CfBT and Centre for London shows that the London Challenge, along with other interventions such as the replacement of failing schools with new schools known as ‘academies’, the Teach First programme and improvements in the quality of support and challenge provided by local authorities, created greater accountability and led London schools to make better use of data. Whilst there is considerable support for the view that the London Challenge and other interventions led to improvement in London schools, it is also important to recognise that London may have benefitted from a ‘following wind’ due to wider social or demographic changes. Research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and LSE claims that historically there was a gradual improvement in London’s schools prior to any of the high-profile policies and interventions mentioned above.

Nonetheless many schools in the North appear to lack the qualities which the London Challenge and other initiatives have helped instil. Illustrative of this is a recent inspection of an authority in Yorkshire, which found the authority had limited usage of data and that it failed to identify schools at risk and intervene quickly enough to halt decline and drive improvement. Ofsted’s latest report also states that over half of the local authorities inspected had not made sufficient or effective enough use of their statutory powers to challenge schools’ underperformance. They were too reliant on informal notices that lacked the impetus needed to create a positive change.

As well as strategic changes, fairer funding is crucial to reduce regional disparities. Although the Government has introduced the pupil premium - additional funding for publicly funded schools in England to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils - funding from local authorities still accounts for a large proportion of funding. In some cases, there are significant disparities across different local authorities. For example, the funding given by the local authority to schools in Tower Hamlets is £7,014 per pupil whereas in York it is as little as £4,209. It’s essential that this gap is closed and the ongoing devolution of power and funding to combined authority areas can support this.

Devolution deals so far have placed most emphasis on post-19 education; however, some deals have included Post-16 policies. For instance, Sheffield City Region Combined Authority has already agreed to work with colleges and training providers to tailor courses to ensure that local people have the skills they need for employment. West Yorkshire Combined Authority has agreed half-fare bus and train travel for all 16 to 18 year-olds living in West Yorkshire to increase their access to apprenticeships and training.

However, it is noticeable that these steps in education terms are relatively minor compared to the important steps being taken around health and social care. In part this represents centralisation in the education sector. More than half of secondary schools are now academies or free schools and these schools are independent of local authorities and accountable to the Secretary of State. However, the experience of London is that many of the solutions to educational underachievement are at a local level.

This is exactly why the SMF Commission is timely and welcome. The Commission can play a pivotal role in identifying the missing links in the devolution agreements to date and can provide areas outside London with practical guidance to end the regional disparities in education.