58% of people in the North think the pandemic will negatively impact the next generation, ITV News poll finds

As pupils and teachers return to school for the start of the new academic year, the challenge ahead of them is somewhat different from previous years.

After months away from the classroom, the prospect of catching everyone up is no mean feat. For pupils in the north of England, that catch-up process is likely to be even greater. In this part of the country, only 34% of disadvantaged children get five good GCSEs at school, compared to 48% in London.

More children in the North are left without the basics they need to continue studying or get a well-paid job. 

Analysis of official figures also reveals that children in the north of England are less likely to go to university than their counterparts in London, including those in the capital from disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, Department of Education data from 2019 shows that 45% of children receiving Free School Meals go on to Higher Education, compared to just 23% in the North West and 19% in the North East.

Even more starkly, those children in London claiming Free School Meals are more likely to go to university than those in the North East and Yorkshire who aren't eligible (44% in the North East and 43% in Yorkshire). 

In London, 45% of children receiving free school meals went to Uni - almost twice as many as in the North West, North East and Yorkshire.

The indicators that I’ve been reading through over the recent months suggest the North-South divide is not closing, it’s actually widening again.

Dr Doug Martin, Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University

Dr Martin added: "If we continue with the policy of schooling being around excellent teaching in the classroom, the pandemic will damage the North badly. If we move to a schooling approach which is inclusive of communities, engages with communities, open seven days a week, community facilities are offered, then we could reduce the impact of this pandemic, particularly on the most disadvantaged in the north of England."

In a survey commissioned for ITV News, 58% of people spoken to in the North said they believe the Covid-19 outbreak will have a negative impact on the next generation's prospects.Furthermore, 42% of people said they don't have confidence in the government's plans to get children back to school.

And after more than six months away from the classroom, many parents (51%) also admitted they'd only managed two hours or less of homeschooling per day during lockdown. 

Safoora Masood Mirza is a mother-of-three from Halifax. She spoke to ITV News about how difficult it was to maintain motivation in her household to continue homeschooling her children.

The government insists it has put measures in place to provide support for pupils and schools.

In a statement, a Department for Education spokesperson said:

“Getting all children back into their classrooms full-time is a national priority, because it is the best place for their education, development and wellbeing, and over the past week we have seen many young people being reunited with their friends and teachers.

 “Throughout the pandemic we have invested in remote education, providing over £100 million to support children to learn at home, including by providing 220,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged and vulnerable children.

 “Our £1 billion Covid catch-up package will tackle the impact of lost teaching time, including a £650 million catch up premium to help schools support all pupils and the £350 million National Tutoring Programme, which will provide support for students who need it most in all regions of the country.”

Analysis from ITV Calendar's Political Correspondent Harry Horton:

It will take many months - perhaps years - until we know what impact coronavirus has had on the North-South education gap. But what we do know is that study after study has forecast children from disadvantaged backgrounds will fall even further behind their peers - and we know the North has a disproportionate number of disadvantaged children. 

Poverty and health at home play a big role in education achievements of children at school. During lockdown, with no teachers around, it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who are likely to have seen their education suffer the most. No amount of laptops or zoom classes will help if your parents are struggling to put food on the table and can’t afford a decent wifi connection. 

Lord O’Neill - who worked in the Treasury for George Osborne - says the Department for Education doesn't take ‘levelling up’ seriously enough. The government denies that and says it wants to ‘double down’ on its ‘levelling up’ agenda. If it wants to reverse a likely widening education gap - it may need to do even more than that.

Watch Harry Horton's report here:

More from our Levelling Up series: