Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The North-East conundrum

Last year Ofsted released a report on disadvantage and education called "Unseen Children". There are all sorts of interesting charts and graphs in there but one set has been puzzling me on and off since the report was released.

They show the percentage of schools with the "most" and "least" deprived cohorts judged good or outstanding for leadership by region. The first chart (below) looks at primary schools and finds that for both the most and least deprived schools the North-East comes out on top, fractionally ahead of London and the North-West.

But then look at the equivalent graph for secondaries. Suddenly - in the "most deprived" category - schools in the North-East plummet to the bottom of the table. And it's not just a leadership issue - the same applies in the "teaching" category - where just 29% of deprived secondaries in the North-East are rated good or outstanding.

My first thought was that maybe there just aren't many secondaries included in this measure for the North-East, which is the smallest English region. Annoyingly the Ofsted report doesn't give any numbers but over 60 secondaries in the North-East are eligible for Teach First - which is a rough proxy - so it's a not insignificant number.

Then I looked at exam data, after all Ofsted inspections are pretty data driven these days. Unfortunately I can't look at the data for these particular schools as I don't know which ones Ofsted have included. However looking at results for pupils on free school meals shows a less exaggerated version of the same pattern. Primary results in the North-East last year were the second best in the country after London, alongside the North-West. This matches the Ofsted figures fairly well.

But a similar table for GCSE results shows the North-East slipping behind the West Mids/North-West and much closer to the other regions. This implies progress for these pupils during their secondary education is lower. And looking at the data for Teach First eligible schools suggests this is the case. In 2012, nationally, 65.7% of pupils in Teach First eligible schools made expected levels of progress in English and 64.3% in Maths. In the North-East the figures were just 60.9% and 59.1%. In Inner London they were 74.9% and 75.9%. Even in other poorly performing regions, like the South-East, pupils made a bit more progress than in the North-East.

So even if the Ofsted data is exaggerating the issue it is pointing to something real. Primary schools in the North-East serving deprived pupils are amongst the best in the country (outside of London) but the secondary schools serving those pupils are making less progress - on average - than elsewhere.

This is particular puzzle as most of the reasons given for regional differences - cultural or economic issues; immigration; supply of high-quality teachers - should apply to both sectors equally. And they seem to in other parts of the country (the West Midlands is an exception the other way - the secondaries seem to be doing better than the primaries).

If you're expecting an answer to the conundrum I'm afraid I don't have one. The only half-baked theory I can come up with is that the unusual labour market in the North-East (high dependency on the public sector for employment leading to higher teacher retention) might have different impacts on primary and secondary schools.

But I'd love to get better theories (or better analysis), especially from people who know the region much better than I do. It seems like an important question if we're to get to the bottom of how to help schools drive up standards outside of the capital.


Thanks to everyone who responded to this blog. No one offered any obvious suggestions that I'd missed but there were a few theories that act as a nice set of hypotheses for future research. So here's a list of the four most popular theories:

That the issue is small 1 or 2 form entry primaries feeding into large secondaries with wide catchment areas. Some people noted that rural areas in other parts of the country also seem to have this issue.

That some LAs in the NE are three-tier.

That the economic situation and lack of jobs in the NE lead to a lack of aspiration or a belief that aspirations can't be fulfilled as young people progress through secondary.

A shortage of "system leader" type heads who can/will take on responsibility for supporting other schools.


  1. Hi there,
    I think there is something in the slow progress of educational reform in the north east. North of Tees Valley, academisation has been slow and we have very few Free Schools, hardly any UTCs and Oftsed gave the tertiary-driven Northumberland quite a dressing down before Christmas. I am not saying that the existing schools are bad, but there is not a great movement towards working within this government's reforming models as yet.

  2. Deprivation has different impacts depending on its root cause and nature.

    Where families still consider themselves to be respectable and to have pride, it is less likely to impact on children of primary age, because they have supportive parents who will be doing their best for them, and will be able to shield them from the harsh economic realities to an extent. It's as the kids get older that deeper social problems start to become noticeable, and the realisation that there are no jobs out there means that more and more kids switch off.

    In London (and the Midlands?), social fragmentation is often a lot worse, meaning that deprivation starts to impact on kids at a much younger age.

    Of course, it isn't just about the kids ... the school staff have a big role to play as well. And this is where there's a bit of a vicious circle. Because schools in the north-east have traditionally not done as well as schools elsewhere *and* economic deprivation means that kids leave school with much lower achievement than other parts of the country, there are fewer well educated people from the north-east. And without wanting to stereotype, the north-east isn't a part of the country that calls young people with a siren song – it doesn't have a great reputation, and it's a long way away. London, yes. Manchester and Liverpool, yes. Newcastle? Not so much. So there isn't the home-grown talent pool, and there aren't top quality candidates flooding in from the rest of the country.

    That has a much bigger impact at secondary school than at primary school. Teachers at primary school need to be good at teaching, but the subject knowledge they need for that is broad but not so deep – so lower attainment at secondary school isn't such a barrier to success. At secondary schools, teachers need much stronger subject knowledge, very often to university level – so if there's a shortage of people with good GCSEs, A levels and degrees, there's going to be a shortage of good secondary school teachers.

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