Northern students will be disadvantaged if GCSEs and A levels go ahead after spending more time out of school because of Covid this term, the Department for Education has been warned.
New snapshot figures reveal that almost three-quarters of the areas with the lowest secondary school attendance are in the North.
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership of local authorities and regional business leaders said that the DfE should commit to continuous assessment for students' grades this year and warned that pushing ahead with exams will risk another fiasco next summer.
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The warning was issued after a Tes investigation found that primary schools with the most disadvantaged pupils had only half the attendance rates of those serving the most affluent intakes during lockdown.
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New figures published in response to a parliamentary question show that on 15 October, 17 out of the 23 local authorities where secondary school attendance had been below 80 per cent were in the North of England.
The three regions of the North also have the lowest secondary school attendance in the country.
Secondary schools in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber had the joint lowest attendance rate at 81 per cent, followed by the North East at 83 per cent.
By contrast, secondary schools in the South West had the highest rates of attendance, with 90 per cent of pupils in school, while the South East and the East of England had 89 per cent attendance.
Frank Norris, a former academy director and education and skills adviser for the Northern Powerhouse Partnership said: "The partnership remains very concerned that students across the North are at a disadvantage if the Department for Education opts to go ahead with GCSE and A-level exams next summer.
"Northern students are the ones being impacted the most by high infection rates and self-isolation, and there is no sign of this easing in the near future.
"Currently, the North has some local authorities with attendance rates for secondary schools as low as 61 per cent, whereas a number of southern LAs are close to the usual national average of 95 per cent.
"We appreciate the government's desire to try and keep things as normal as possible, but this is now unrealistic in many northern communities. We urge the government to commit to continuous assessment as it is a fairer alternative to the proposed examination plan.
"It would also reduce the risk of a similar fiasco such as we saw this summer. Assessing children this way, if it is planned in advance, may, in fact, be more rigorous than what is proposed if plans were to have to change at short notice."
Several local authority areas in the North of England have seen attendance below 70 per cent.
In Knowsley, in the North West, it was 61 per cent; in Calderdale, in West Yorkshire, it was 64 per cent; and in Liverpool it was 67 per cent.
It has also been revealed today that a third of confirmed coronavirus cases among teachers were in North West England at one point – amounting to over 700 teachers in the region.
Analysis from the North West Association of the Directors of Children's Services, reported by the BBC, found that in mid-October more than 40 per cent of schools in Bury, Knowsley, Liverpool and Manchester had confirmed cases of Covid-19, with some of these among teachers.
The DfE has said GCSE and A levels will go ahead next year, although schools minister Nick Gibb declined to rule out the possibility that centre-assessed grades could be used as part of the series, when he appeared before the Commons Education Select Committee.