It’s undoubtedly true that schools in disadvantaged areas of the country need additional help, but we need to be better informed as to why, explains Mike Treadaway

Educating the north, a report published by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, hit the headlines recently.

Comments like “poor pupils in the north are a GCSE grade behind” typified the reporting. While the report itself was more balanced, it did suggest that “too many children in the north aren’t getting the education they need or deserve”.

It would be easy to conclude that schools in the north are much less effective than those in London. The same might be said of schools in the Midlands or in the south outside London – the attainment of their disadvantaged pupils is similar to those in the north.

However, things change if we start to look a little deeper. The prior attainment (at key stage 2) of disadvantaged pupils in London is higher than in other areas. Research we have published on the pupil premium shows that the attainment gap at GCSE for the most disadvantaged pupils is twice as big as for the least disadvantaged. And the gap is lower for most minority ethnic pupils than for white and black Caribbean pupil groups.

Minority ethnic pupils do particularly well in schools where they make up more than half of the cohort

Comparing schools on the basis of “similar pupils in similar schools” (the technical term for this is “contextual value added” or CVA) is something that Fischer Family Trust introduced in 2003, and while CVA has come and gone from the DfE’s performance tables, it continues to be available in FFT Aspire.

New research I have carried out shows that if we take a CVA approach, school and pupil characteristics account for around 85 per cent of the difference between disadvantaged pupils in London and the north. Much of the remaining 15 per cent is because pupils in London are taking more subjects that count in Attainment 8, but this has been closing over recent years.

So if schools in the north have similar effectiveness to schools elsewhere when a CVA approach is used, does this mean that the Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s demand for more resources is not justified?

Other research that we are publishing today suggests that there are important ways in which the north (and other regions) differ from London.

Pupils who are entitled to free school meals for over 90 per cent of their time in school – and particularly those of white or black Caribbean ethnicity – present the greatest challenge. And schools with a proportion of these pupils above the national average are not evenly distributed. Nationally it’s about 18 per cent of schools – but in the north it is 41 per cent!

Minority ethnic pupils do particularly well in schools where they make up more than half of the cohort. This is true across all regions, but London has a much higher proportion of schools where this is the case than any other region.

Do these facts mean that schools outside London cannot learn from the success of London schools? Certainly not! Lessons from the London Challenge initiative highlighted the benefits of collaboration between families of schools. The performance of minority ethnic pupils, many of whom have English as an additional language, is also an area where London can offer insights, although, as the Education Policy Institute’s Jo Hutchinson pointed out recently, removing specific funding for EAL is potentially an issue.

In 2016 there were 80 schools where disadvantaged white pupils formed the majority of the pupil premium cohort, but where Progress 8 scores for these pupils were average or higher.

Importantly, 43 of these 80 schools are in the north, with eight in London. We looked at one such school – Sheffield Park Academy – in detail last year.

This suggests that schools in all regions can learn lessons from others in their own area. Online tools, such as ‘collaborate’ in FFT Aspire make this possible, but it does need a commitment to openness and collaboration between schools if it is to have a real impact.

The argument for additional resources to help schools in the north can be justified – albeit on the basis that it is harder for them to close the gap, not because their schools are significantly less effective.

Mike Treadaway is an associate research fellow at Education Datalab