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Paul Vallely: GCSE north-south divide is a scandal  

01 September 2023

Results last week show that the UK is far from levelling up, argues Paul Vallely

Alamy

Students at Paddington Academy, in London, open their GCSE results, on Thursday of last week

Students at Paddington Academy, in London, open their GCSE results, on Thursday of last week

PHOTOGRAPHS of happy smiling faces seem to tell the same story in the Evening Gazette, Evening Standard, and Evening News. But the images cover very different realities. And there is nothing happy or smiling about the disparities that they conceal.

In Middlesbrough, in the north-east of England, where I was born, the local paper is the Evening Gazette. For three decades, living in London, I read the capital’s newspaper, the Evening Standard. Twenty years ago, I moved to Manchester, where the Evening News provides the local updates.

All three papers, every August, carry photos of exultant students waving their exam results. The stories beneath all convey the same message: “Congratulations to our top achievers.” Yet the three newspapers ought to tell significantly different stories.

The row about this year’s exam results has been that, to counter the grade inflation that crept in through teacher assessment during Covid, grades overall have been lowered by four per cent to pre-pandemic standards, causing disappointment and distress to many students.

But far more worrying is the gap that this year’s results reveal between students in London and the north of the country. Some 28.4 per cent of GCSEs awarded to Londoners this year were Grade 7 or above — the old A and A*. But only 18.6 per cent of pupils in the north-west achieved that level. Students in the north-east got just 17.6 per cent. The gaps are now wider than at any time over the past decade.

The pandemic made this worse, increasing the educational divide between rich and poor. Children in the south-east are 57 per cent more likely to go on to university than those in the north. But the problem is more deep-rooted than education. It is about relative poverty: it is why healthy life expectancy for a man in Richmond-upon-Thames is 15 years longer than for one in Blackpool.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto — before anyone had heard of Covid — promised to address these deep disparities with a pledge to “level up” Britain, a commitment that helped the Tories to win seats in Labour “red-wall” areas. In 2021, ministers asked the respected education expert Sir Kevan Collins to develop a post-Covid recovery plan.

But, just months later, they rejected his proposals, “not for being wrong, but for being too expensive”, to quote the former Conservative education minister Justine Greening. Sir Kevan, who resigned in protest, last week blamed the latest manifestation of the scandalous north-south divide on the fact that ministers have funded only ten per cent of the £15-billion package that he had said was vital. “Teachers and schools have been heroic in all this, and they were abandoned.”

There are other factors in this affront to social justice, of course. Exam results are better in attractive areas in which teachers want to live. The cost-of-living crisis means that children in poor areas are increasingly absent from school, because, one north-west head teacher says, single mothers have “taken extra shifts at the factory or nursing home to keep food on the table”, and older children have become childminders for younger ones.

Earlier this year, Rishi Sunak asserted that to improve standards in schools had been “the single most important reason” that he came into politics. He has not got long left to deliver.

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