Tackle pupil attainment gap in northern England, IPPR urges

School hall

Tackling the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is the key to improving the performance of schools in northern England, a report has said.

The study by the Institute for Public Policy Research says northern secondary schools lag behind the England average.

The report echoes Ofsted’s warning that without better education, the government’sNorthern Powerhouse economic plan will “splutter and die”.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said ongoing reforms had helped poor pupils.

The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is “falling”, but “the job is not finished yet”, she said.

The IPPR report, which was funded by education charity Teach First, said the proportions of pupils achieving the benchmark five GCSEs at grades A* to C were:

  • 55.5% in the north
  • 57.3% in England as a whole
  • 60.9% in London

And pupils eligible for free school meals at northern schools do worse at GCSE than their counterparts in London, the researchers found.

For free school meals pupils, the proportions achieving the GCSE benchmark are:

  • 34% in the north
  • 36.8% in England as a whole
  • 48.2% in London

Despite a few “beacons of success”, there are large attainment gaps in the pre-school years as well as at secondary level, the report said.

However, primary schools are performing in line with national averages and some local authorities have levels of attainment for disadvantaged children to rival London.


A focus on failing schools will not solve the problem, say the authors, as “even good and outstanding schools have attainment gaps”.

“Policy makers should focus on tackling variation within all schools,” they urge.

This problem is not restricted to small towns and coastal areas, often singled out as areas where pupils perform poorly.

“Even large cities such as Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield need to raise their game.”

The report also points out discrepancies in school funding between regions, and backs government plans to improve funding to northern schools through a newnational funding formula.

In the north, annual funding per secondary pupil is about £5,700 compared with about £7,000 in London, the report says.

London ‘once worst’

IPPR associate director Jonathan Clifton said London had not always done well by disadvantaged pupils.

“Two decades ago London was the worst place to attend school if you were from a low income background.”

He said the capital’s example showed success was possible “through investment, strong leadership and collaboration”.

“We need a similar level of ambition for schools in the north.”Colin Ferguson, Teach First’s north-west director, said young people were “the future of the Northern Powerhouse” but “urgent action” to unlock their potential would be needed if the government’s plan to drive productivity and economic growth in the region was to be realised.

Shadow education secretary Lucy Powell said the report “rightly warned that the government’s rhetoric of a Northern Powerhouse will not match reality unless real action is taken to close the growing attainment gap between disadvantaged young people and their peers”.

Ms Powell said ministers should focus on the root causes of low attainment “rather than obsessing about the forced academisation of all schools against their wishes”.

Mrs Morgan said great teachers were “vital” to raising school standards.

‎”We are also ensuring that all schools have the resources they need through the introduction of a historic new national funding formula that will ensure funding follows need rather than a historic formula and continuing to invest in the pupil premium, worth £2.5bn this year.”