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Children caught in north-south gap;News;News and opinion

A TES analysis of GCSE results shows a regional divide in the performance of schools. Clare Dean and Karen Thornton report.

TONY Blair may be quick to attempt to dismiss a regional divide in wealth, but in education, it can be grim to be a child growing-up in the North.

Northern authorities, and some councils in London, have the highest levels of pupils eligible for free school meals - the most widely used indicator of poverty.

Nationally, 16.9 per cent of pupils are entitled to free school meals. Seventy-four of the 81 authorities with higher levels than this are in the North.

Almost four out of 10 pupils in Liverpool are eligible for free meals, in Manchester 43 per qualify and in Knowsley, 52 per cent.

Last week The TES revealed that local authorities with similar levels of deprivation across the north-south divide produce widely different GCSE scores.

The analysis identified the 37 authorities with GCSE results much lower than those with similar levels of poverty. Twenty-nine of these are north of a line from the Severn to the Wash (see map).

The 37 authorities performing better than others with similar or lower levels of poverty included 17 London boroughs, 13 of them with an above-average proportion of pupils on free meals. Among them were Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Hackney, Lambeth and Newham with some of the very highest levels of deprivation.

Only six of these 37 over performers were in the North as were only seven of the 25 authorities which have improved their GCSE scores the most since 1996.

Meanwhile, an independent report published this week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points to continuing - and possibly worsening - inequalities in education.

The report, an assessment of poverty and social exclusion over the past two years, says 4.4 million children are below the official poverty line (less than half of average income after housing costs). Two million children are living in houses where there is no one in paid employment.

Overall, children are achieving more at school - with better results in GCSEs and in national tests for 11-year-olds. But there are signs that the poorest children are not sharing fully in this improvement, says the report, compiled by the independent New Policy Institute.

Catherine Howarth, one of the report's authors, pointed to significant differences in the performances of primary children in schools with 35 per cent or more of children on free meals, compared to pupils in all schools.

She also highlighted an increasing concentration of poorer children in particular schools - leading to a polarisation within the primary sector.

"In terms of the numbers below average income, there has not been a lot of change in the 1990s. We are in the same situation as we were at the beginning of the decade, yet we have seen seven years of economic recovery which don't seem to have dented the poverty factors," she said.

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