North East schools succeed despite the loaded system

Mike Parker asks why the state of education in the region is consistently misunderstood by policymakers
6th October 2017, 12:00am
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North East schools succeed despite the loaded system

When Sir Michael Wilshaw glared out across an audience of around 450 headteachers at the Schools NorthEast Summit in 2015, it was advance warning of the much-anticipated lecture on the gap in performance at primary and secondary phases that was to follow.

The North East has grown tired of the custodians of the schooling system (the message was repeated by education secretary Justine Greening at the summit in 2016) who chastise on the one hand while doing little to pull the policy levers to support lasting change in a region that has more than its fair share of challenges.

The region’s secondaries are also a little frustrated, to put it mildly, that the Orwellian “four legs good, two legs bad” narrative ignores the underlying achievements in a region beset by systemic problems.

This is best illustrated by Dr Rebecca Allen, director of Education Datalab, whose research on contextual value added illustrates that the region’s schools are in fact the best in the country, both at primary and secondary level, in terms of positive impact.

What we miss by looking only at national attainment indicators is any understanding of the extremely challenging societal circumstances in which schools in the North East operate. And, to be sure, there are many such circumstances.

The North East has the lowest gross value added per capita of all English regions; the highest unemployment level of all UK regions; the lowest university entry rate of any English region; the lowest levels of population mobility in England and Wales; the lowest level of owner occupation outside London; and the highest level of free school meal (FSM) eligibility outside London.

A more nuanced view than the “primaries good, secondaries bad” interpretation is that our schools by and large make the best of a less-than-ideal situation, while recognising the need to continually improve.

This should never be an apology for attainment at key stage 4 being below most other areas, but it is important context when considering how the national education system needs to be supportive of all parts. The fact is that Allen’s reading of the data shows that schools across the region succeed despite, rather than because of, the system.

A case in point is the 12 new “opportunity areas” announced by the education secretary since last October. The aim is to provide extra investment and support to schools in areas identified by the government’s social mobility index as having low levels of social mobility.

Robert Goodwill, minister for children and families, made this very point at the Conservative Party conference this week when he used a speech at an Education Policy Institute fringe event to eulogise the ability of opportunity areas to “offer every child the opportunity (of a quality education), no matter their background”. It’s a noble sentiment.

Nothing in the pot

What a shame, then, that the only two areas not to benefit from an opportunity area are the richly funded and highly supported London boroughs and the North East.

The skew of high-performing primaries, the relative abundance of teaching schools and the effect of low house prices on social-mobility-index outcomes has, perversely, excluded North East local authority areas from being included under the current methodology for choosing locations for this targeted support.

Moreover, it is clear that - as far as the government is concerned - opportunity areas are essentially the only game in town for schools that are most in need.

Many of the successful bids for the first round of the Strategic School Improvement Fund are in or close to opportunity areas and, again, no funding from this pot was awarded to bidders from the North East.

Other elements of the government’s education policy also misunderstand the region’s needs. While the decision to overhaul the funding system into one national funding formula is to be welcomed, we have serious concerns about the decision to include an area cost adjustment (ACA) element.

The purpose of the ACA is to adjust for regional labour-market costs by applying a multiplier to the total per-pupil formula settlement. In practice, this means the North East will lose funds to the South. By way of example, a pupil with low prior attainment in any North East local authority (we are the only region where no local authority will receive any uplift from the ACA) would attract £5,347 of funding, but in Chelsea, that same child would get £6,305 - almost an extra £1,000.

Social mobility in action? You decide.

No special treatment

Sir Nick Weller’s Northern Powerhouse schools strategy pointed out that schools in the North are already struggling to retain and recruit the best teachers, and that secondaries with lower APS (average points score) intakes are more likely to receive a negative Ofsted grading.

Evidence also shows that Progress 8, on average, skews against schools with higher FSM numbers. That’s before you get on to the EBacc driving already disengaged working-class pupils, particularly boys, down narrower curriculum choices.

We wouldn’t argue for special treatment. A level playing field on funding and support would be a tremendous start. A clearer understanding of the drivers of quality education for all is essential, as is greater engagement in re-empowering the profession to lead the change.

There must also be greater focus on driving up parental aspirations and skills, so that they can engage and support children through the school years; and ensuring those crucial early years are immersed in the spoken and written word, and rich in social capital.

As one North East head once put it, “If you started building the Channel Tunnel an inch out either side, you’d have one heck of a gap at the other end.”

Schools are working hard to bridge that gap. Let’s get an education system scaffolded around them that ensures they achieve because of, and not despite, the system.

The Schools NorthEast Summit will be taking place in Newcastle on 12 October. Book your place at

Mike Parker is director of Schools NorthEast

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