There remains a huge disparity in achievement according to the location of schools, something the pandemic brought into stark relief.

In a recent article we celebrated the success of our granddaughter and her friend’s excellent GCSE results. Their results were some of the best achieved in England.  Fortunately for her she goes to one of the highest performing 11-16 years mixed comprehensives in the country.  We use the word fortunately carefully because there is a wide disparity in performance between schools.  Some of this can be attributed to the student’s gender, degree of social disadvantage and ethnicity.

More recently another way of looking at this difference between schools is by grouping schools according to region.  This has considerable significance for this government, which won the last election with a pledge to level performance between regions.

The figures we have presented above are those provided by the Department for Education. They refer to the percentage of students in each region who achieved the higher grades, not the DFE’s target grade for schools, which is lower.

They clearly demonstrate a considerable difference between the percentage of pupils passing these grades, with those in the North East achieving 16.4 per cent in 2019 before the pandemic struck and 22.4 per cent this year, 2022.  This contrasts to London, with 25.7 per cent in 2019 and 32.6 per cent in 2022.  The highest percentage was achieved by all regions in 2021, when the results depended solely on teacher assessments. This year, in recognition of the disruption to their education the pupils had suffered, they were given some assistance by the examination boards and the body responsible for qualification said the overall results would come in at a point between the 2021 and 2019 results.

For those of us who have worked in London schools, this continues a trend which started with the London Challenge. This was devised to improve the performance of the City’s schools, from the worst performing region to the best – a result which was achieved within the first five years and as we can see has continued to this day.

Elsewhere, however, these results caused Chris Zarraga, the director of Schools North East to be quoted as saying that this year’s GCSE results in England are a “map of the impact” of the pandemic and its disproportionate effects.

He said: “We are incredibly proud of the students and school staff in our region and all they have achieved despite unprecedented circumstances.

“However, the results also reflect the disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on our region and the exacerbation of serious perennial issues, especially of long-term deprivation.

“Schools urgently need a properly thought through and resourced ‘recovery’ plan, that recognises the regional contexts schools operate in, with a long-term view of education and a curriculum that is appropriate and accessible to all students and schools.”

Achieving the improvements required is a complex issue. There is no doubt that the political alignment and will that drove the Challenge was critical to its initial implementation and its long term success. It provided the catalyst but what this went on to convert came from multiple sources, both within the best practice of the City and from emerging effective innovation elsewhere. It highlighted the need to encourage, identify and share best practice, and demonstrated this is just as important as importing ideas from elsewhere.

In the United Kingdom as the cost of energy and climate change continue to put pressure on our economic life, the objective of levelling up might prove even more of a challenge than when the promises were made. There is already talk of schools having to increase class sizes and reduce the length of the school week to try to meet increasing costs. With budgets failing to rise with the rate of inflation and no sign of it reducing within the next school year, the situation could well get worse before it gets better.

On a positive note, many of our schools have found from experience that it costs little and can improve performance significantly if they ensure their espoused theory is clearly understood by everyone in their schools and that time is provided so staff can hone their skills through a dialogue with their peers who have been trained to support them, double loop learning.

Have a good year.  Take care and stay safe.


Professor Sir George Berwick, CBE