Schools in Northumberland are being inspected by Ofsted this week following damning figures on children’s attainment in the county.
The authority has been singled out as “failing” children on free school meals and having low levels of good and outstanding secondary schools compared to the rest of the North East.
The figures show that in 2012 only 26% of pupils on free school meals in secondary schools were able to achieve five or more A* to C GCSE grades, including English and Maths, compared to 62% for other pupils in the county. Across the North East, 33% of children on free school meals achieved this grade and 36% nationally.
Nick Hudson, Ofsted’s regional director for the North East, Yorkshire and Humber, said the gap in attainment was an “unacceptable situation” and his inspectors would be going into 17 schools over the next week to find out why the pupil premium is not being effectively used to help disadvantaged children, as well as examine the underperformance of secondary schools in the area.
“The inspections themselves are just regular inspections at those schools, all we have done is bring them into a concentrated period,” said Mr Hudson.
“The schools will be asked some additional questions and they will be asked questions about Northumberland local authority and if the local authority is providing appropriate support around helping them to improve as schools. We will also be doing telephone surveys with a number of good and outstanding schools in the county to get their views on the role of the local authority in school improvements,” he said.
All the information from the inspections, and interviews will be compiled into a report which will be shared with Northumberland County Council’s director of children’s services and that will determine what Ofsted do next.
Mr Hudson said he was concerned that children on free school meals in the county are not getting the education they deserve.
“It’s not something that’s only recently been noticed, I think what the latest figures show is really how acute it is. That is what triggered our interest,” he said.
Last year in schools in Northumberland, only 61% of children on free school meals achieved Level 4 in English and Maths at Key Stage 2, compared to 82% of their non-FSM peers in the authority.
Nationally and within the North East region, 66% of children on FSM achieve this grade.
Mr Hudson said: “If you look at national research it shows young people on free school meals do better when there is more of them. Now there is only a small percentage of young people in Northumberland on free school meals, it is relatively low, but there are a lot of children in Northumberland but in individual schools they are spread across a lot of schools.”
Mr Hudson said this meant teachers would have to pay a lot of attention to these pupils if they are to do well, according to the national research. He said this would be a focus of the inspections.
He added: “While I recognise that primary schools in Northumberland are doing well, I am very concerned that children on free school meals in the county are not getting the education they deserve.
“The proportion of children on free school meals in the county is relatively low and therefore it is even more of a worry that there is a significant attainment gap for these children compared to their peers within the authority, in the North East region and nationally. This is an unacceptable situation.”
While first and primary schools in the county are doing very well, with 92% of children going to a good or better school, Ofsted said there is a disproportionate number of under-performing secondary schools.
The latest data from August 31 this year shows that 37% of secondary schools - which include middle deemed secondary - were judged less than good at their last inspection, compared with 27% across England.
This means more than 8,000 children in the county are going to a secondary school that is not yet good.
Berwick Liberal Democrat MP Sir Alan Beith said: “I am concerned by these figures, particularly as the Government is putting extra funding in to provide more support for disadvantaged children and young peoples. Ofsted is doing what it needs to do by trying to establish what the problems are and how better results can be achieved.”
Blyth Valley Labour MP Ronnie Campbell said: “It is a shame and we just have to try harder. They will have to look at the report and see where they can improve.”
Addressing the issue of the gap in attainment between free school meals children and non-free school meals children, Mr Campbell said: “They are the kids who need the education the most. I think some of the children’s parents do not give a dam as they as they come out the other end. In the old days it was OK because they could go down the pits or go to the ship yards, but those jobs are all gone now.”
He added: “Govenors as well, they should be pushing as well, pushing the head teachers to improve.
“If it is down to money they should be knocking on my door to say but they are not.”
If there is evidence that the local authority is not fulfilling its statutory duty to promote high standards and fair access to educational opportunity, Ofsted may consider carrying out an inspection of the authority’s school improvement function under the new framework.