This summer’s exam results have once again shown the persistence of regional disparities in educational attainment. Across A levels and GCSEs, the gap in top grades between the North East and London has actually widened.
But while there is a growing North-South divide in educational attainment, it is wrong to suggest that this is due to a divide in school performance. The truth is that our current measurements of school performance are not fit for purpose, and that too often economic and geographical factors are mistakenly presented as educational ones. And that leads us to perpetuating ineffectual policy.
This is nothing new. Published in response to the 2019 general election, our Manifesto for North East Education, highlighted these problems and set out our key recommendations for all political parties and policymakers. And while much has changed in the intervening three years, those recommendations are more relevant than ever. Indeed, the pandemic has only exacerbated many of the challenges schools already faced – particularly around long term disadvantage and special educational needs and disabilities – and all the more so in those serving disadvantaged communities.
Central to our manifesto was ensuring that education policy was evidence-based, taking a longer term view to ensure stability in the sector, and recognising the regional context schools work in.
Yet it is clear from this year’s set of results that government policy fails to take into account not only the perennial challenges but also the disproportionate impact of the pandemic facing regions like the North East. Too often, a one-size-fits-all approach remains the default setting of education policy, including interventions like post-Covid ‘catch-up’.
Schools in areas of high-impact, long-term deprivation require much greater support to ensure that their students can achieve their full potential. It is vital that schools have a comprehensive education recovery plan, with the right resources targeted to where they are needed.
To ensure this, the government must trust the profession to deliver the best support for their students. The National Tutoring Programme (NTP) is a case in point. It initially failed to reach adequate numbers of students in the North East because its design and implementation failed to take into account our lack of pre-existing tutoring infrastructure as well as our challenges around recruitment and retention.
Since then, the inclusion of school-led tutoring as part of the NTP has allowed schools greater flexibility in delivering catch-up activity, increasing school engagement with the programme in our region. That is a testament to the readiness of our school workforce to support students. But more than that: It is proof positive that our schools are not the problem. Given adequate resources and the autonomy to act, they have all the capacity within them to unlock the potential of our region’s young people.
So as we witness the widening regional disparity evidenced by these exam results, it won’t do to fall back on the old tropes that the north east’s schools provide a lesser education. Instead, let’s accept that that the same old approaches will only deliver the same old predictable outcome.
All schools urgently need a properly thought-through and resourced ‘recovery’ plan. But in developing such a plan, it is crucial that our next secretary of state for education recognises the importance of taking a long-term view in devising it and of the regional contexts schools operate in for delivering it.