It’s becoming evident that social class or socio-economic status and not gender or ethnicity determine how well a child does at school.
The more affluent the family, measured by wealth or job, the more successful a youngster will be and the greater their ‘life-chances’.
The defining mission of a responsible North of Tyne Combined Authority must be to tackle these differences and ensure every child in our region has the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential, regardless of family background.
The Children’s Commission 2018 report, Growing Up North, is the latest to observe that working-class kids or those from poorer neighbourhoods achieve weaker exam results than those of their peers from more well-to-do families especially in the north of England.
According to research done by the Convention of the North, qualification levels are lower in the North than in England as a whole.
Over a quarter of the region’s populace have no qualifications. Most of these people are working class. Less than a quarter of Northerners possess a Level 4 qualification.
The most disadvantaged pupils in England have fallen further behind their peers. They are on average over two years behind non- disadvantaged pupils by the age of 16.
The worst hit areas are in the north of England: Cumbria, Tyneside and South East Northumberland.
As the Cambridge university educationalist Diane Reay’ notes: ‘There remains an entrenched and unbroken correlation between class and educational success.’
What’s going on and can it be fixed?
For the authors of Growing Up North, the chief factors for working-class under-achievement are poverty and material circumstances.
In Newcastle Central, over 37 per cent of kids experience child poverty, an increase from two years ago, which has clearly had an impact on their educational success or failure.
There’s an attainment gap between pupils who receive free school meals and those that don’t. Fifteen per cent of boys receiving free school meals don’t get five GCSEs.
Problems at home are to blame for poor exam results than schools, such as low incomes and poor parenting. The reality is too many poor youngsters residing in our inner-cities and outer- council estates are living in overcrowded conditions, where there’s little space to do homework. Many lack computers – what the experts call digital exclusion.
Sadly, in some workless households, there’s a lack of parental interest, with a deeply ingrained ‘anti-learning culture’. Although this is slowly breaking down amongst affluent sections of the working class in Newcastle and North Tyneside, it’s not in the urban coastal communities of Amble or Blyth Valley.
In contrast, middle class professional parents possess the economic and social and cultural capital to get their children into the best universities and jobs.
Some scholars like Lord Addonis put it down to the quality of schooling.
Of-course many schools and colleges in the region are doing their best, with able and dedicated teachers with an emphasis on inclusive learning. But over a fifth of pupils in the North are in secondary schools rated less than good by Ofsted. Two of the region’s post-16 colleges have been rated as being ‘in need of improvement’.
The Government’s free market policy measures such as free schools and academies have had little impact. Even former Ofsted boss Michael Wilshaw conceded that academisation had failed to transform ‘the miserable standards’ being achieved in the North East.
Good schooling can’t eradicate inequality but it can mitigate it. There’s lots of evidence to support Tony Blair’s view that an outstanding school in a low-income neighbourhood can make a difference to the life-chances of all students.
For instance, teachers who are well prepared for lessons. Teachers who have high expectations and who set high examples of pupil behaviour. Teachers who place emphasis on praise rather than blame.
Teachers who treat pupils with respect and show a genuine interest in their development. But above all, there’s an expectation, set by competent, high-striving head teachers, who are signed up to a strong achieving ethos which promotes self-confidence and self-esteem amongst learners.
To date there’s been an encouraging response from national government. Part of our region has been designated an Opportunity Area with a budget of £24million. This money will be spent on providing early career training for teachers, targeted support to struggling schools and work to improve the transition from primary to secondary education.
Likewise, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, headed up by former Tyneside councillor Henri-Murrison, is lobbying for the creation of a new centre of excellence to research and share good practice to raise educational standards in our region.
If we’re serious about raising the attainment level of disadvantaged youngsters, the elected Mayor for the North of Tyne must adopt public policies to bring about a more equal and fairer sub- region.
The establishment of a Learning Challenge based on the successful London model, made up of those who can walk the walk rather than talk the talk, remains a priority.
Contrary to popular belief, the distinctions of class haven’t vanished. It’s these that affect how well children do at school and the future laid out before them.
Answers may be found within the Combined Authority. But the North East will need to look to Westminster and Whitehall for a greater slice of the public cake is we’re to finally break the educational class divide.
Stephen Lambert is director of Education4Democracy and a Newcastle city councillor. He writes in a personal capacity.