Urgent action is needed to tackle a growing gulf between the rich and the poor in the region's schools, the Government's child poverty adviser has warned.
Former Cabinet Minister and North East MP Alan Milburn said he was extremely concerned by figures which showed that the North East had not only the worst attainment at GCSE but also the biggest gap between children on free school meals and those from wealthier backgrounds.
Last year 59% of children in the North East got five or more good GCSEs including English and maths – the accepted target for school leavers.
But that figure fell to 33% for children eligible for free school meals, with a gap of more than 31% to children from better off backgrounds – the biggest gap between rich and poor in England.
By contrast the gap between rich and poor in London was only 18%, with this narrowing between the classes coming after the London Challenge, a Labour initiative in which help was specifically targeted at those most in need.
Last week official statistics suggested that efforts to reduce child poverty in the North East and the rest of the country had stalled in the economic downturn.
Mr Milburn, who is chair of the Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, said improving educational attainment for poorer children was key to reducing child poverty.
He said: “The most important thing is education. We know that time spent in education and success in schools leads to more social mobility. The worrying thing from this region’s point of view is that the North East has 25% of kids in those poorer households.
“We have less than 59% of kids in the North East getting five or more good GCSEs including English and maths compared to 63% in London.
“But what is just as stark is that 67% of kids who get free school meals don’t get those five GCSEs but only 36% of kids in general lack those qualifications. That gap of 31% is the largest gap in any part of the UK.”
Official statistics published at the end of last week showed that there was no change in the number of children living in relative poverty last year – but only because UK households in general were getting poorer.
Some 2.3m children (17% of the total) were recorded as living in relative poverty in 2011/12, under the official measure of living in a household with less than 60% of median average disposable income.
But if the number was calculated using average household incomes from 2010/11, the figure rose to 2.6m (20%). This discrepancy indicates that the reason the headline figure has remained stable is because falling incomes throughout the country have dragged down the level at which “relative poverty” kicks in.
The Government has a legal responsibility, under the Child Poverty Act passed in the final weeks of Gordon Brown’s administration in 2010, to reduce relative child poverty to below 10% by 2020.
The North East has above average levels of poverty, with 21% of children living below the target level.
To break the cycle of poorer children doing badly at school and then finding it harder to break out of poverty, a number of people have suggested the North East needs a version of the “London Challenge”, a scheme set up in 2003 to target specialised help at low performing schools in the capital.
The scheme has been widely praised and saw poorer children in London doing far better at GCSE than their counterparts in the regions.