Bishop of Durham speaks in a debate on GCSE and A-Level Results: Attainment Gap

On 8th September 2022, the Bishop of Durham spoke in a debate on the attainment gap in exam results, regarding children in North East England:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I begin by expressing, on behalf of these Benches, our concern for Her Majesty, and the assurance of our thoughts and prayers for her and the Royal Family.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for securing this debate and pay tribute to the way she has stood up for the young people of the north-east throughout her distinguished career. I declare my interests as chair of the National Society and the Durham Diocesan Board of Finance.

I begin by celebrating the success of our young people and their teachers, particularly those of the north-east, in the recent A-level and GCSE examination results in both schools and further education colleges. However, we cannot hide away from the gap between the north and the south of England—the stats have already been quoted, so I will not repeat them. The most recent figures continue to show that disadvantaged communities in the north continue to be hit hardest by the Covid pandemic and its impact on learning. Poverty is in every north-east postcode and is set to worsen. Headlines include, for example:

“In 2020/21, the North East overtook London to have the highest rate of child poverty in the UK, at 38%”.

Too many of our communities are named in the top 20. Although the latest UK-wide figures show that overall child poverty rates dropped slightly in the first year of the pandemic due to the temporary £20 uplift to universal credit, detailed breakdown shows that child poverty continued to rise in areas such as Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough.

While there have been efforts by the Government such as the National Tutoring Programme, in March 2021 this had reached only just over 58% of the target schools in the north-east, compared with the 100% and 96.1% quoted earlier by the noble Baroness. As the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and Schools North East have pointed out, the lack of pre-existing infra- structure and the challenges around recruitment have exacerbated this problem. It is important to acknowledge that this has improved since the inclusion of school-led tutoring—which, if I remember rightly, was barred in the first instance. This suggests that the schools themselves are not at fault. How might this be further rolled out and secured?

The Government’s welcome package of spending is being invested in all our schools. However, this will not have the desired impact while schools are left to fund a deserved pay award and the increased costs of simply heating a school. This money will, in some cases, allow schools to stand still, but others will fall further behind. Strong multi-academy trusts will be unable to have the desired impact they are expected to achieve in the education investment areas if all the funding is required to keep open the doors of their existing schools. I had a conversation this week that predicted that, although it is not legally allowed, there will not be a single multi-academy trust in the north-east that will be able to set anything other than a deficit budget in the coming year.

The question of adequate funding in further education also arises here. Further education often helps people who have not done well at school to do better in their GCSEs, A-levels and other studies. What might be learned from that to help schools? The Government’s levelling-up White Paper set a target of increasing the percentage of children from the worst-performing areas meeting the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by over a third by 2030. This will be achieved only if there is a focus not only on education but on children’s health, the adequacy of the housing in which they live and their capacity to access online support through good broadband and so forth. We need a fully thought-through and resourced recovery plan that is bespoke for the north to tackle the real issues of disadvantage, lack of resource and teacher recruitment and retention.

I ask the Minister: how will Her Majesty’s Government look again at the issues facing the north-east region and work collaboratively with local leaders to find long-lasting solutions that are fully funded and grounded in research-led initiatives that work? The schools and colleges themselves have demonstrated they are not the problem, but they certainly must be part of the solution.


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