North East tops rankings to challenge ‘national divide’

29th January 2016 at 00:00
‘Contextual’ performance data casts doubt on officials’ claims that northern schools are underperforming

Schools in the North East of England outperform all other regions on GCSE and Sats results when pupils’ background is taken into account, according to a new analysis for TES. The findings call into question warnings from Ofsted and ministers about a “North-South divide” in education.

The analysis, carried out by Education Datalab, shows that the region’s schools had the highest scores in the country for “contextual value added”, a measure that assesses pupils’ progress and takes into account a range of contextual factors including gender, ethnicity, deprivation, special educational needs and whether English is an additional language. Based on this measure, abandoned by the government in 2010, primary and secondary schools in the region were the highestperforming in the country.

The figures cast doubt on Sir Michael Wilshaw’s claim that the region’s schools are underperforming. The Ofsted chief inspector said that this was part of an “alarming” North-South divide.

He said too many secondary schools in the North and the Midlands were letting pupils down, adding that “the North East illustrates the problem better than any other region”.

Sir Michael said this was because, although 90 per cent of the region’s primary schools had been judged good or better, a third of its secondary students attended schools that had been rated as either “requires improvement” or “inadequate”.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan has also raised concerns about a regional divide. In November, she said: “It’s a sad truth that when you look at many of the underperforming local authorities in our country, a significant proportion are located in the North of England.”

Education Datalab’s analysis, based on last summer’s results, shows that the North East had the country’s lowest average GCSE grade.

But when the same measure is used to calculate a contextual value-added (CVA) score, taking pupil background and progress into account, secondary schools in the North East are the best performing in the country.

The region’s average key stage 2 score was the third-best in the country, behind London and the South East. But once the CVA score was calculated, the region also topped the table for primary performance.

The research – by Dr Becky Allen, one of five commissioners recruited by the Social Market Foundation to undertake a new inquiry on inequality in education – reveals how much regional rankings can change depending on the measure used.

Dr Allen, who is also director of Education Datalab, told TES that emphasising a “North-South divide” created a “rather simplistic narrative on schools”. “Regions are far too large and diverse to make generalisations,” she said.

Her findings follow a report published by the IPPR thinktank in October, which said that many northern children “get off to a bad start in life”, with fewer than half of the most deprived pupils achieving a “good” level of development at the early years stage.

The report warned: “Problems in early years can have a strong bearing on GCSE attainment – and so, unsurprisingly, the North underperforms in this area too.”

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told TES he was concerned that much of the national debate about a “North-South divide” was based on attainment data rather than measures that took into account schools’ circumstances and their progress.

“We should be looking at it in a much more nuanced and sophisticated way than that,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me that as soon as you contextualise the circumstances, for individual schools or parts of the country, these things flatten out.”

Joe Linden, an education consultant who works with schools in the North and former deputy head of English Martyrs School in Hartlepool, told TES that he was “delighted” to hear the North East’s CVA score (see box).

“The value-added context makes the figures very different,” he said.

An Ofsted spokesperson said: “Our inspections always take into account the progress made by pupils from their starting points. However, we do not use contextual valueadded figures because we want to set high expectations for all pupils.

“Primary schools in the North East perform well. The problem is often the transition to secondary school.

“While there are a few places, such as North and South Tyneside, where secondary schools are doing a very good job, too many teenagers attend schools that are less than good. Those pupils deserve better.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Some young people aren’t being given a chance to fulfil their potential because of where they live.”

They added that this was why a National Teaching Service – to place the “best teachers” in schools in “struggling areas” – was being piloted in the North West and the government was investing £5m in academy sponsors to “help turn around underperforming schools across the north of England”.

@kayewiggins Are North and South really poles apart? See this week’s feature on page 26

‘People will be heartened to see we’re doing so well’

Joe Linden, an education consultant working with schools in the North who was deputy head of English Martyrs School in Hartlepool until last summer, welcomes the contextual value-added scores for the North East.

“From the perspective of the North East, using a contextual value-added measure is a very fair way of looking at schools,” he says.

“Deprivation levels are high, and it can feel like the odds are stacked against you. Areas like the North East get a bad press, and when you’re at a school there you’re aware that you’re in an area with a lack of work.

“So I think people in the North East will be heartened to see they’re doing so well when the context is taken into account. Often in education, particularly if you’re in a school that finds things difficult, it does help to get some better press.”

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