North East schools must not use deprivation as an excuse for failing children, a former cabinet minister has said.
Labour’s former health secretary, Alan Milburn, told an audience of around 400 teachers and school leaders that too many schools in the North East are letting down children from the worst-off circumstances, while others from similar backgrounds go on to excel.
Mr Milburn, who currently chairs the Social Mobility and Child Poverty (SMCP) commission, said two thirds of North East children from deprived backgrounds fail to achieve five good GCSEs.
He went on to say more children post-16 from the region leave school and that the North East has the lowest rate of young people going to university. London, he confirmed, sees double the amount.
“North East schools are moving in the right direction but they have a long way to go,” he said.
“We have a long way to go to see the poorest child in this region get as good a grades as the wealthiest child. The gap is large but it is narrowing.
“The North East has one of the highest levels of child poverty in the country but something we should never tolerate is poor kids doing less well than others.
“It’s a moral outrage and it has to change. Countries as different as Canada and Singapore have raised the attainment level of all their young people across the board.
“London had the worst schools in the country, but today they are among the best.
“Some schools in disadvantaged parts of the North East are doing better than others even though they’re working with children from the same neighbourhood.
“All schools could be aspiring to be better than they are and as good as they can be.”
A recent report from the SMCP commission said huge gaps in the exam performance of disadvantaged pupils – ranging from more than 60% passing GCSEs in some schools, down to just 20% in others – showed that many state schools in England needed to do a better job in helping the worst off.
The research found that if every school in England improved the performance of pupils from poor backgrounds so they were half as good as those achieved by the best performing schools, 60,000 more children would have gained five good GCSE passes, including English and Maths, last year.
“Headteachers and governors have a responsibility to ensure that every teacher in every school has uniformly high expectations of their students,” Mr Milburn said.
“Deprivation need not be destiny. If some schools can do it, there is no excuse for others not to.
“There is a shocking gap in performance between similar schools serving similar communities and these challenges are at large in the North East.
“Some of the region’s schools have cracked the code on how to improve social mobility by helping disadvantaged children to excel in education.
“Teachers have worked hard, not just during lessons, but by working with parents in deprived areas to help raise their aspirations for their children. They have simply taken the mantle that failure is not an option.”
Mr Milburn was among a number of keynote speakers at St James’ Park, in Newcastle, on Friday.
The annual Schools North East summit calls on the region’s school leaders to share the good practice they have developed in their schools as inspiration to others.