3, February, 2017

Do schools and colleges in the NE of England perform worse with equivalent students? By Stephen Gorard, Durham University

George Osborne’s has launched a new report as part of his Northern Powerhouse project which recommends “urgent attention” is given to improving the performance and aspiration of schools in the region.

Here Professor Stephen Gorard, Durham University, gives his analysis:

“Since at least the 1990s, it has been relatively common for policy-makers, commentators and even academics to use differences in school-level attainment between geographical regions of the UK to claim that the lower attaining region is somehow underperforming. No allowance is made for differences in school intakes, levels of relative poverty, or usually even the prior attainment of students. When these differences are factored in, or a comparison is made with similar regions in terms of school intakes, the differences disappear (Gorard 2000, Gorard and See 2013). But the pattern of abusing raw-score regional figures continues. This can be distressing for schools, staff, pupils and families. It can lead to wasteful or even harmful attempted solutions. For example, there might be claims that it is somehow the students’ fault because they are not aspirational enough despite clear evidence that high aspirations are relatively common and un-stratified in schools (Gorard 2012). Perhaps such attitudinal causes are proposed because they would then have cheap solutions. But these solutions do not work. It is not, like the X Factor, simply a question of wanting ‘it’ more.

Cost matters. Schools in the NE of England have for a long time received less funding per pupil than other areas of the country. The London Challenge was implemented with the help of considerable extra funding going to schools that, on average, already received more than those in the NE. These London schools also started their challenge with already higher attainment and a lower poverty gap than those in the NE. And yet when the NE Challenge was proposed no funding was offered by government. Even the otherwise excellent Pupil Premium funding that follows disadvantaged pupils to their schools is ‘unfairly’ distributed between rich and poor areas (Gorard 2016a). In proportion to population Middlesbrough, for example, is eligible for about the same Pupil Premium funding as Kensington and Chelsea – despite these areas having markedly different school intakes (Gorard 2015).

The north and south of England are similar in many ways and there are high-attaining pupils everywhere, but there are bigger pockets of long-standing disadvantage in the north – of a kind that is well-known to be linked with lower average attainment at school. In the same way, two schools may be similar in some respects according to official data such as the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM). But they could be very different in reality – with one school having mostly pupils eligible for that year only and the other having pupils who had been officially classified as poor for their entire school career.

Putting these factors into a regression model to predict results, I used capped GCSE or equivalent point scores as the outcomes variable for each of the 600k pupils in England 2015 (the model is the same as used to assess whether grammar schools are differentially effective – Gorard and Siddiqui 2017). The predictors were pupil background variables such as sex, FSM status, first language, ethnicity, and precise age in year, and prior attainment at Key Stage 1 (when they were aged 7). This explained or predicted just over 65% of the variation in outcomes – with prior attainment, as ever, the single strongest predictor. I then added whether the pupil was at school in one of the ten local authorities in the NE. The variation predicted remained at 65%. This suggests that being at school in the NE makes no difference to attainment compared to other regions of England, once differences in school intakes are accounted for. In fact, the coefficient for NE yields a negligibly small benefit for attending a school in the NE (‘effect’ size 0.01).

Do schools and colleges in the NE of England perform worse with equivalent students? No. So let’s not start by blaming the schools, teachers, students or families involved.”


Gorard, S. (2000) ‘Underachievement’ is still an ugly word: reconsidering the relative effectiveness of schools in England and Wales, Journal of Education Policy, 15, 5, 559-573

Gorard, S. (2012) Querying the causal role of attitudes in educational attainment, ISRN Education, Volume 2012, Article ID 501589, 13 pages, doi:10.5402/2012/501589

Gorard, S. and See, BH. (2013) Overcoming disadvantage in education, London: Routledge

Gorard, S. (2015) The complex determinants of school intake characteristics, England 1989 to 2014, Cambridge Journal of Education, 46, 1, 131-146

Gorard, S. (2016) A cautionary note on measuring the pupil premium attainment gap in England, British Journal of Education, Society and Behavioural Sciences, 14, 2, DOI: 10.9734/BJESBS/2016/23618

Gorard, S. (2016) Challenging Perceptions of a North South Regional Divide in School Performance in England, BERA Annual Conference, Leeds, September 2016

Gorard, S. and Siddiqui, N. (2017) Grammar schools in England: a new approach to analysing their intakes and outcomes, http://dro.dur.ac.uk/20400/

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