Lack of 'high quality teachers' causing low GCSE grades in North East, minister claims

A group of students opening up their GCSE results.
This year 22.4% of pupils in the North East achieved a grade 7/A compared with 32.6% of students in London. Credit: PA

Students in the North East of England achieve lower GCSE grades than their southern counterparts because the area struggles to attract "high quality, high calibre teachers", the school standards minister has told ITV News.

Grades across the UK are higher than pre-pandemic levels, but 16-year-olds in the North East were at the bottom of the table when it came to top grades this year - just as they were in 2019.

The north-south attainment gap is wider now than before the pandemic, with the difference between the North East and London (the highest achieving area) rising from 9.3 percentage points in 2019 to 10.2 percentage points this year.

This year 32.6% of students in London achieved a 7/A or above, but in the North East the figure was 22.4%. The gap is also slightly wider than last year, where there was a 10 percentage point difference.

Education Minister Will Quince told ITV News the "pandemic has set us back" when asked about regional attainment gaps in England.

Education minister Will Quince said that regional disparity on GCSE grades is "not a new challenge", but claimed the gap is narrowing.

"Even though we've seen the attainment gap and regional variation and disparity falling, the pandemic did set us back," he said, insisting that the "heart of levelling up is ensuring that wherever you live in our country, you get a world-class education."

Asked why the North East had scored the lowest results, the minister replied: "In part, it's about attracting high quality, high calibre teachers.

"It's also about other socioeconomic factors in particular areas, which is why you're now seeing that levelling up funding, those town deals, that investment into those areas that haven't seen investment for many decades."

He said there's been disparity between the north and south "for decades" and reducing that is "not going to be a quick process", but added that it had been "narrowing every single year" until the pandemic hit.

"The mission continues," he added, "we've got to ensure that wherever you live in our country, you get access to a world-class education".

Jo Saxton from Ofqual, a non-ministerial government department that regulates qualifications, agreed with Mr Quince on the struggle to attract teachers in the North East, but pointed out that the region has "made the greatest gains outside of London".

This year 22.4% of students in the North East scored 7/A or above, up from 16.4 in 2019, which is said to be the most comparable year because it's the last before coronavirus caused schools to close.

She said: "Today's results in the North East are a huge triumph to teachers and leaders in that region."

Asked about the minister's comments regarding hiring teachers, Ms Saxton, Ofqual's chief regulator, said "it can be difficult to recruit staff" in some areas, but insisted that filling vacancies is rarely a problem.

Schools North East, which describes itself as dedicated to improving outcomes for young people in the north-east of England, said the increased gap shows that adaptations made this year, including more generous grading and focussed revision topics, had not gone far enough.

It said: “It is clear that the disproportionate impact of the pandemic in regions like the North East has not been effectively taken into account.

“This year’s results can be seen as a ‘map’ of the impact of the pandemic on students and schools.”

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The group’s director, Chris Zarraga, said the pandemic had exacerbated “serious perennial issues, especially that of long-term deprivation”.

He said: “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.”

As expected, with the return to formal exams for the first time in three years, top grades fell from 2021 levels, but remained higher than in 2019.

Figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) - covering GCSE entries from students predominantly in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - showed top grades of 7/A have fallen from 28.9% in 2021 to 26.3% this year, a drop of 2.6 percentage points.

But this remains higher than the equivalent figure for 2019 of 20.8%.

The proportion of entries receiving a 4/C - considered a pass - dropped from 77.1% in 2021 to 73.2% this year, a fall of 3.9 percentage points, but higher than 67.3% in 2019.

The overall rate for grades 1/G or above this year was 98.4%, down from 99.0% in 2021, but slightly above 98.3% in 2019.

Ms Saxton said the results were “a testament to students’ hard work and resilience” and that she had met students and staff who wanted exams and formal assessments to take place, with pupils keen for “a chance to prove themselves”.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said there has been a “strong indication” from its members that they want mitigations put in place again in 2023 “because next year’s cohort will have also been heavily impacted by Covid”.

An Ofqual spokesperson reiterated its position that it wants to “get back to pre-pandemic standards”, but added that it will “reflect on the results this year” and make an announcement on 2023 arrangements in the autumn.