North-South divide in education is ‘too simplistic’ as poorer children do better in big cities across country, minister says

Eleanor Busby

The argument of a North-South divide in education is too “simplistic” as poorer children in cities across England often do better than their peers in non-urban areas, the education secretary has said.

Some of the “finest” schools and strongest education attainment is found in the north of England while some areas in the south are "not nearly as good as they should be”, Damian Hinds argues.

London is not the only place where disadvantaged children thrive as they are also more likely to make progress and obtain higher grades in larger cities elsewhere, Mr Hinds said in a speech on disadvantage.

His comments come after MPs called on the government to take action to narrow the “stark” attainment gap between young people in the north of England and those living in the rest of the country.

The plea followed a report from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership which revealed that disadvantaged northern teenagers fall on average one GCSE grade behind the rest of the UK.

But speaking at an event in Westminster on Monday, Mr Hinds said the North-South divide idea was “too simplistic” as young people in big cities across the country are more likely to get good results.

The minister highlighted the scale of success among poorer pupils in London and the factors that are likely to have contributed - which included shorter distances to travel, more universities and more languages.

He added: “The city effect doesn’t seem to impact only in London. Distance is also relevant elsewhere.”

Mr Hinds suggested that a greater focus on areas of the country with large populations of disadvantaged white British children, who are among the lowest performers, could help narrow the attainment gap.

His comments came as new data from the Department for Education revealed that poorer pupils who live in coastal areas achieve around three grades lower at GCSE than their peers in non-coastal locations.

Meanwhile, disadvantaged pupils achieve around six grades higher on average and make more progress in schools in cities than those in hamlets and isolated dwellings.

The government’s new Children in Need review also revealed that children who have come into contact with a social worker at any time since Year 5 achieve two grades lower at GCSE than their peers.

Mr Hinds announced on Monday that the school admissions code will be changed to speed up school moves for children who have needed the support of a social worker, including victims of domestic abuse.

The Department for Education review found they are three times more likely to be persistently absent from school, and four times more likely to be permanently excluded.

These children have poorer educational outcomes at every stage of learning than those who have not had contact with a social worker, the review sets out

However, Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, said the "paralysis currently affecting much of Whitehall and Westminster" is letting children in need down.

Russell Hobby, chief executive of charity Teach First, said: "It's tragic that for too long many disadvantaged young people have not just been left behind - they've been kept behind - unable to break an enduring cycle of disadvantage.

"To tackle this head on we must see more investment for schools and teachers in the upcoming spending review, alongside a continued commitment to the Pupil Premium."

A consultation will be launched in due course to determine what changes need to be made to the admissions code so children in need can secure a school place more quickly.