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North-south division at GCSE;Hot data

Some areas are more equal than others, reports John Howson

AS THIS year's GCSE examination papers head off to be marked, the depressing news is that across the country pupil achievements are not the same. Pupils in the south of England, on average, are likely to achieve better results than their peers in the North.

Recently-published figures for 199798 show that the Government office regions covering the North and the Midlands produced below average results whereas those in the South and East were above average. London overall was below average, but there were marked differences between the overall performance of boroughs in inner and outer London.

In his recent speech to the National Association of Head Teachers, days after these figures were released, Tony Blair warned under-performing local authorities that, "higher standards are the be-all and end-all of their role". He also promised to "act decisively in the case of LEA failure". The message then seems clear: improvements are expected.

Presumably the greatest level of improvement will be expected from those LEAs with the poorest exam performance, unless they can illustrate how the pupils in their schools are already performing beyond expectation.

One curious feature of the table is that, apart from London, the regions with below-average performance at age 15 are those with the fewest problems recruiting teachers. They also contain areas of relatively low teacher turnover. Assuming that teachers are all trained to the same standard, is it necessary to look for other factors to understand the differences in exam performance?

Certainly high levels of unemployment may not help in motivating pupils but, surely that cannot be the reason why the most able students still perform less well in some regions than in others. Of the 12 local authorities in the North-east, only two - North Tyneside and Northumberland - exceeded the national average for either boys or girls gaining five A-C grades. It is the same unhappy picture in Yorkshire and the Humber region where only North Yorkshire, York and East Riding were above average. In Kingston-upon-Hull only 18.6 per cent of boys and 27.6 per cent of girls achieved five A-C grades, among the worst figures for any English local authority.

Among other factors to consider are the unequal allocation of resources, and maybe even social factors such as house prices. To be a "world-class education system" we must ensure educational parity at home. Could this mean some geographical engineering?

John Howson is a fellow of Oxford Brookes University and runs an educational research company. E-mail int.edu@lineone.net

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