It is widely accepted that, economically and culturally, England has a North-South divide. But does this really extend to education?
As head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw twice made this the subject of his annual report. He warned that we were “witnessing an educational division of the country, with schools performing well overall in the South but struggling to improve in the North and the Midlands.”
Research on academy capacity also points to a problem for a government that sees academies as the solution. A report by the National Foundation for Educational Research shows that the three regional school commissioners (RSCs) covering the North are facing the biggest challenges in terms of underperforming schools and a lack of sponsors to take them on.
As far as the wider performance data of schools is concerned, the picture is more complex.
The three regions of the North are among the bottom four nationally when it comes to the number of pupils achieving a good GCSE pass in English or maths – that’s a 5 or above in the brave new world of numerical grades.
But Yorkshire’s Progress 8 score is among the highest in the country and the North East boasts some of the best primary school Sats scores of the nine government regions. And that is before you start to look at the results of high-performing authority areas within the North such as Trafford and York, let alone individual schools.
The most striking conclusion you can draw from regional data is the extent to which London stands out from the rest. Sir Kevan Collins, the chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, says the problem with looking at a North-South divide is that the picture is skewed by London and masks areas where there might be concerns in the South.
“It is not about North or South,” he explains. “There are pockets of excellence everywhere. Redcar had the best primary school results in the country.”
Professor Mel Ainscow of the University of Manchester also warns that talk of a divide “conceals as much as it reveals”. He adds: “ I’ve been working been working on school improvement in Plymouth and, with the challenges it faces, you would say that should be in the North of England.”