Ofsted head warns of 'divided nation' over secondary school standards


The extent to which under-performing secondary schools are concentrated in particular parts of the country is deeply troubling, the head of Ofsted has warned, and is leading to "nothing short of a divided nation".

Sir Michael Wilshaw said a lack of political will is contributing to the "growing divide" which means that of the 173 failing secondary schools in the country, 130 are in the North and Midlands, with just 43 in the South.

His fourth annual Ofsted report found there are 16 local authority areas in England where fewer than 60% of children attend good or outstanding secondary schools, have lower than national GCSE attainment and make less than national levels of expected progress.

All but three of these are in the North and Midlands.

These areas are Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Blackpool, Oldham, Doncaster, Bradford, Barnsley, Stoke-on-Trent, Derbyshire, Liverpool, Knowsley, St Helens and Salford.

"The extent to which under-performing secondary schools are concentrated in particular parts of the country is deeply troubling," the chief inspector of schools said.

"We are witnessing an educational division of the country after age 11, with secondary schools performing well overall in the South but struggling to improve in the North and Midlands.

"The facts are stark. Compared to secondary school children in the South, those in the North and Midlands on average make less progress in English and maths, perform worse at GCSE and attain fewer top grades at A-level.

"If left unaddressed, the consequences will be profound. Our society, our future prosperity and development rely on the better education of our children.

"I fear that unless we resolve these divisions our country's educational progress will be seriously impeded and we will not be able to compete as well with our international competitors."

Sir Michael said more good leaders and teachers, and a greater focus on the most disadvantaged was needed to turn things around.

His report argues the divide cannot simply be explained away by the higher levels of economic deprivation in the North and Midlands.

It points out there is no difference in the quality of primary schools across the country or in the achievement of seven-year-olds and 11-year-olds at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. If said that if the country's primary schools were to be roughly divided in half, 85% in the South would be good or outstanding compared with 84% of primary schools in the North and Midlands.

He said the lower standards in secondary schools in the North and Midlands have a direct impact on outcomes for children and young people.

He said there is now an urgent need for the same type of collective action by local politicians, MPs, chief executives and headteachers that was seen in London in the late 1990s to raise secondary school standards in towns across the North and Midlands.

Action is needed at a national level to tackle the issue, including financial incentives to get trainees to start their career in the areas and schools that need them most, and thought given to a form of "golden handcuffs" to encourage teachers to keep on working in the state system that trained them.

"We have to ask whether this level of failure is being effectively challenged by local politicians and school leaders, and whether the relatively successful big cities in the North and Midlands are playing their part in supporting their neighbouring towns," he said.

"If Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and Newcastle are to be engine rooms of a Northern powerhouse, one of their priorities must be working with the towns on their borders to raise attainment and close skills gaps across a wider area."

The report also found the achievement of pupils from low-income backgrounds remains an ongoing weakness, while a shortage of new teachers of a high standard - and not enough of them opting to work in these challenging areas - is also a significant concern.

In the further education (FE) and skills sector, it found that improvements among providers have slowed and performance has declined in general FE colleges (GFE). Only 35% of GFE colleges inspected this year were good or outstanding.

The quality of apprenticeships is another serious issue, with almost half of the programmes inspected this year judged less than good.

Sir Michael added: "All of our evidence shows that it is good leadership that makes the biggest difference to school standards. Yet in many areas of the country there is a shortage of good leaders, with, as so often, disadvantaged areas suffering the most.

"The most troubling weakness in our education system remains the performance of children from low-income backgrounds. They suffer disproportionately when leadership is weak, oversight is poor and recruitment of good teachers is difficult. Sadly, the 'long tail of underachievement' that prevents too many of our poorest children realising their potential shows few signs of being eradicated.

"But I fear that if the recruitment issues remain unaddressed, if training provision in much of the country continues to be patchy, and if schools that are desperate for good teachers struggle to find them, we are destined to remain a nation divided."