The rush to the booming South shows no signs of diminishing. But the lure of greener pastures has a hidden cost for teachers and their families eager to escape the post-industrial North, reports Jon Slater
A NEW term means a new school for thousands of pupils and teachers across the country. And as Britain's population continues to shift, it increasingly means a move southwards - away from the post-industrial north towards a booming London and south-east.
Between 1994 and 1997, 23,500 people left the north of England to move south. Most did so for economic reasons. As the map shows, people in the North-east are now more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those in the South-east. And a person in Newcastle earns, on average, pound;9,000 less than a Londoner.
The north-south divide is nothing new. But it became a hot political potato in the 1980s when the decline of traditional manufacturing industries in areas such as Tyneside, Manchester and South Yorkshire was in sharp contrast to the success of service industries in London and the home counties.
When the recession of the early Nineties hit the South-east hard, it seemed the gap might be closed. But in fact, the recovery of the past few years has seen it widen once more and the trend is set to accelerate.
The Government expects a 13 per cent increase in the population of the South-east over the next 20 years and more than half a million extra people are predicted to be living in the South-west. Merseyside is expected to be the area worst hit by the exodus from the North - if the figures are proved correct, a tenth of its population will leave.
These trends will have a huge impact on education policy, schools and teachers. Ministers may regret putting pressure on local authorities such as Lambeth to reduce surplus places. Over the past four years (a time of rising school rolls), pupil numbers have risen by 22 per cent in London, compared to just 7 per cent in the North-east. While there are now 26,000 spare seats in classrooms in London, estimates suggest that there could be a shortfall of more than 20,000 places by 2005.
Providing so many new places would cost more than pound;250 million - just for London. But there could be more problems than just the cost. The new pupils across the South will need teachers to teach them.
Spiralling house prices and a higher cost of living mean that northern teachers may find it difficult to move south even if they wanted to.
According to research done by mortgage lenders, Royal Sun Alliance, average house prices in London have risen by more than a third in the last year to pound;183,000. The South-East and South-West have also seen large rises, to pound;90,000 and pound;78,000 respectively.
But further north it is a different story. House prices in the North-west actually fell this year, to an average of pound;63,000. In the North-east prices are even lower, with an average home costing just pound;57,000.
Such a gap may be manageable for a computer programmer or banker who can expect their salary to compensate. But how can a teacher with a house in Gateshead be expected to move south and maintain their standard of living?
The answer is they cannot. London weighting will not cover the recent hike in accommodation costs, and teachers in other parts of the South don't even get that help. Unless they have another source of income they are likely to have to rent or buy in a less desirable area than they could afford in the North. Those moving to jobs in London may be forced to live in satellite towns such as Luton or Slough and commute into work to avoid the overheated property market of the capital.
And teachers with school-age children of their own face the additional difficulty that living near a school with a good reputation will attract a 10 per cent premium. "Buyers have been so desperate to secure property that in certain parts of the country people have been known to offer literally anything in exchange," said the Royal Sun Alliance Report. "This could bring a whole new meaning to the phrase 'customer satisfaction'."
But while teachers in the South struggle to make ends meet, those in the North will be faced with a different problem.
Cities such as Liverpool whose population is set to drop sharply may be forced to close schools - leaving teachers to fight for falling numbers of jobs, change careers or move south.
And increasingly, northern cities are becoming polarised between estates which are on the up where house prices are rising and residents are relatively well-to-do and areas which have suffered from chronic crime, vandalism and falling property prices.
Residents on poor estates become trapped - unable to sell their homes and move out. Earlier this year there were reports that on one estate in Newcastle flats have been offered for sale at just 50p each - including a pound;25,000 improvement grant.
As communities become polarised, so too do schools. Teachers working on run-down estates will be faced with only the most difficult pupils: parents who can afford to will move their families to more pleasant surroundings. These schools are likely to fall in the league tables, depressing house prices yet further.
The population drift is beyond the scope of education policy-makers - and perhaps even the Government as a whole. Market pressures are encouraging people to move south and while regeneration money for deprived areas may ameliorate the change it is unlikely to halt it.
Economic reality could force ministers to make tough decisions. Professor Alan Smithers, a specialist in recruitment at Liverpool University, believes that national pay scales for teachers may have to be scrapped. "When you have a national set of salary scales, something that is reasonable for areas in the North is not necessarily reasonable for London and its suburbs," he said.
"The Government may have to give discretion to LEAs and governing bodies to pay teachers enough so that they can afford decent accommodation for themselves and their family."
For teachers' unions already up in arms over performance-related pay, however, that could be a step too far.