Opinion

Educating the North: the attainment gap, the Ofqual algorithm and the graduate brain-drain

On Thursday, the director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership warned that the Ofqual algorithm used to calculate this year’s A Level results “may well have entrenched regional disparities.” The algorithm, designed to grant students’ grades on the basis of previous results, centre assessments and the historical performance of their schools and colleges, has already been reported to disadvantage pupils at underperforming institutions. 

Those who have been following the dialogue on the north-south divide in education will know that such an algorithm will automatically set pupils in the north and Midlands behind their southern peers. In 2015, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector reported that the “improvement in secondary schools has been driven by schools in the south of England. If you draw a line roughly from the Wash to the Bristol Channel, 79% of the secondary schools below it will be good or outstanding compared with 68% of those above it.“ That year, a third of the north east’s secondary school students attended schools that were less than good. Of the 49 schools in the most disadvantaged areas that had inadequate leadership, 41 were in the north and Midlands. Thus, whilst an undoubtedly large number of disadvantaged students from the south and London were also punished on Thursday, evidence hints at a regional disparity in where the burden fell.

Source: Department for Education, BBC

But is this divide simply a function of class and income inequalities? A large scale research project in 2018 rejected the idea that northern schools with equivalent intakes were less effective than their southern counterparts: “the most important factor that determines school test and exam results is not the quality of teaching or leadership but who they teach, the proportion of pupils who are disadvantaged through poverty, family circumstances or special educational needs, and most crucially the length of time they have been disadvantaged.” Certainly, a Department for Education graphic demonstrates the higher proportions of students in the north and west Midlands in receipt of free school meals, which could indicate the importance of pupil intake in determining outcomes in these regions.

However, despite the particular concentrations of deprivation in the North of England, this is not necessarily what is driving the gaps in attainment – after all, London also has among the highest poverty rates in the UK. In 2018, the BBC reported on a continuing divide between London and the rest of the country, even when comparing children from similar backgrounds. Children on free school meals in London do much better than children on free school meals in other regions, and this gap worsens as they get older. Not only are Londoners on free school meals more likely to participate in higher education than other low income students, but they are more likely to do so than the national average. The achievements of disadvantaged students in London should of course be celebrated, and the significant barriers they may have overcome to achieve should not be undermined. However, we must ask why their peers in other parts of the country appear to be consistently less able to make the same progression.

Source: Growing up North, March 2018

So, what is going right in London? A possible answer is the extra funding the capital’s schools have received since the mid-1990s, when there was evidence that students there were falling behind. Before the introduction of a new funding formula in 2018, northern secondary schools were receiving £1300 less per pupil than secondary schools in London. The result is that the trend has reversed. Only 16.4% of students in the north east received grades 7-9 at GCSE in 2018, compared to 25.7% in London and 20.8% nationwide. This is also reflected in Oxford admissions; in the 2017-2019 admissions cycle, Oxford admitted 12.5 students from London for every 1 from the north east, despite London having less than 3.5 times the north east’s population. 

Given this background, it is not surprising that Ofqual’s algorithm appeared to disportionately punish high-achievers from all three northern regions. The Guardian reported that the year-on-year rise in proportion of students achieving A or A* grades was highest in the east Midlands (3.4%) and London (2.9%). Meanwhile, the rise in the north east and north west was 1.9% and 1.8% respectively (and 2.2% in Yorkshire and the Humber).

This could be a blow to previous recommendations that the north’s revival must be rooted in education. A 2018 report by the Children’s Commissioner  called for a reinvestment in the north’s schools, including a drive for local enterprise partnerships to bring employers and schools together to open up job prospects. However, the effects of such investment may remain limited by a phenomenon known as the “brain drain.” The Guardian reported that from 2010 to 2016, 310,000 highly-skilled workers had moved from the north of England to the south, with only 235,000 going the other way. Such huge losses only compound one of the worst regional divides in Europe.

This is not a new phenomenon – a study by researchers at the University of California and LSE looked at historically northern surnames, and found that by the 1970s, an astounding 40% resided in the south. Furthermore, this was a move that consistently paid off, with those migrating during the 1800s becoming significantly wealthier, higher skilled and more educated by the end of the century than those that they had left behind. This trend continues today, with northern graduates often “voting with their feet”, leaving the north to realise their earning potential and climb the job ladder elsewhere. A 2018 study went as far as to say that this hemorrhaging of high skills is the cause of economic gaps between the north and south; however, students who choose entry level jobs in London over uncertainty at home cannot be blamed for the north’s economic woes, and neither should the 59% of Oxford’s Northern Soc members polled who said they’d leave the north upon graduating. This is quite clearly a systemic problem that goes beyond individual-level solutions.

The north-south divide in England is not clear cut; coastal towns and urban areas up and down the country display high levels of deprivation, and the prevalence of both wealth and poverty in many of the nation’s regions suggest against the stereotype that south = rich and north = poor. If we look at education, however, a story of austerity, poorer attainment and poorer returns on that attainment emerges. Regional disparities in education and employment are structural and frustratingly circular, and reinvestment is absolutely necessary (even if not sufficient) to break these cycles.

As for students nationwide who were let down on Thursday, we can offer consolation only in the form of renewed activism and attention to the issues at hand.