Education Observatory

Research in Education at the University of Wolverhampton

North South Divide project

North South Divide

This research examined the credibility of the notion of a north-south divide and its effects on children, young people and staff in schools.

Completed Projects

This research was funded by the British Educational Leadership, Management & Administration Society and was designed to:

  • Examine and problematise the notion of a north-south divide in two local authority areas in the North East of England with special attention to the disadvantaged contexts in which they were located.
  • Explore and describe the landscape of school to school collaboration in the two areas and how it was led both formally and informally.
  • Develop understanding of effective school to school collaboration among school leaders and build capacity in schools in evaluating progress.

The project adopted a two-phase mixed methods approach. The first phase examined a range of regional and local authority level performance and context data to establish the extent to which a north-south divide existed. The quantitative data analysed included Ofsted ratings and Key Stage 2 and GCSE outcomes. The second phase drew on that broad analysis to inform qualitative semi-structured interviews with school leaders in two local authorities in the North East which were undertaken between October 2016 and July 2017.

The analysis of these data used a two-stage analytical process based on framework analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The first stage involved thematic analysis of the similarities and differences in the stated experiences and perspectives of participants in each local authority. The second stage examined these themes against the theoretical framework already outlined to interrogate them with reference to the existing knowledge base. In-depth semi-structured group and individual interviews were undertaken with 11 headteachers/principals and 25 senior and middle leaders in the two authorities.

Research paper

Below is a summary of a longer article, Is there a North-South divide between schools in England? published in Management in Education in 2018.

The idea of a divide between the North and the South in England goes back at least as far as the 19th century, although there has never been consensus about where the dividing line lies. The north-south divide was applied to schools in England in 2015 when Sir Michael Wilshaw identified in his annual Ofsted report (2015) ‘nothing short of a divided nation after the age of 11’ between schools in the North and the Midlands (grouped together) and those in the South of England. His 2016 report claimed that the gap had widened. Following this, the notion of a north-south divide between schools has become accepted wisdom, perpetuated by media and policy reports which tend to overlook Wilshaw’s careful focus on secondary education. This is a summary of research which examined the credibility of this notion of a north-south divide and its effects on children, young people and staff in schools through a focus on North East schools.

Wilshaw’s identification of a north-south school divide was based on analysis on Ofsted school ratings. However, basic analysis of the data contained in the report’s annexes revealed that the North East was ranked fifth of the nine English regions in terms of percentage of children in good or outstanding secondary schools, ahead of the other regions in the North and the Midlands and only one per cent behind the South East in 2016. In primary schools, the North East was third, less than one percentage point behind London and the North West. So much for a north-south divide on Ofsted data.

Of course, Ofsted ratings are only one measure. Many of the reports that followed Wilshaw’s, notably those associated with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, also identified a divide using school performance data. However, if we take primary education first, primary schools in the North East came second (after London) in 2016 in terms of the percentage of pupils reaching expected standards in reading, writing and maths combined and for the subjects individually. This outcome was replicated in 2017. Given that the ‘early years gap’ between children from wealthy and poor homes has been found on some measures to be almost twice as large in the North of England compared to London, this suggests that many primary schools in the North East in particular have achieved something remarkable. However, this achievement is obscured by the north-south divide’s focus on secondary schools, which is then often extrapolated to primaries in the face of the evidence.

But is this maintained at secondary level? Initial analysis suggests not. 2016 marked the first application of Attainment 8 and Progress 8 at Key Stage 4. Secondary schools in the North East appeared at the bottom of the regional list on both measures. In fact, all regions in the North and Midlands had negative Progress 8 scores in 2016 and all other regions were far below London. In 2017, schools in the North East and North West remained the lowest-performing regions in terms of Progress 8, but Yorkshire and the Humber was second only to London, suggesting that the picture is more volatile than has been claimed. How can we account for this volatility and the apparent disparity in performance between primaries and secondaries, particularly in the North East?

Explaining the ‘divide’

There are a number of factors which may help to explain this, many of which are obscured when raw data is compared. One factor is school funding. It was estimated that Northern secondary schools received on average £1,300 less per student per year than schools in London in 2016. The dedicated schools grant for 2017-18 revealed that funding per pupil in Tower Hamlets in London was 65 per cent higher than in Northumberland. Improvements in school performance in London from 2003 (Hayes, Jopling & Gul, 2018) were not achieved on current levels of school funding elsewhere, which prompts understandable complaints from school leaders in the North when they are criticised for failing to match London schools’ performance.

A second factor relates to how school performance is measured. Concerns have been raised about the use of Progress 8 because it does not take levels of disadvantage into account, which are consistently higher in the North. Here analysis of the so-called ‘London effect’ helps. Research has suggested that the achievement gap between rich and poor has been narrower in London than in the rest of the country because children from deprived backgrounds performed better, because their prior attainment at Key Stage 2 was better, and because they were much less likely to have a White British background (the lowest performing ethnic group) than in other areas (Greaves et al, 2014; Blanden et al, 2015). Recent research by Leckie and Goldstein (2018) developed an Adjusted Progress 8 score, which adjusts Progress 8 for seven pupil background characteristics including gender, ethnicity, special educational needs and deprivation. Using this measure, secondary schools in the North-East move from having the lowest Progress 8 score of all the regions (-0.11) to the third highest (0.2). As they assert, ‘under Progress 8 schools in the North East are doubly disadvantaged by teaching not just relatively poor intakes, but by also disproportionately teaching white British pupils’ (Leckie & Goldstein, 2018). In contrast, the most recent NPP (2018) report takes the performance divide at face value and offers a bizarre explanation: ‘The transition from primary to secondary school may go some way to explaining this apparent decline in attainment in the North East and the lack of effective collaboration between institutions and teachers across both stages is key’. No evidence was provided for these assertions.


The implications of all this are many, but three are highlighted here:

  1. Using the North East as a test case suggests that the ‘statistical’ evidence that there is a north-south divide in school performance is not proven and needs to be challenged. Such challenge will benefit from more sophisticated data analysis which focuses on variations in performance within and across regions, rather repeating generalised condemnations of regional under-performance.
  2. It is important to develop new, broader and more contextually sensitive approaches to assessing schools’ and young people’s performance and development, which more effectively address the effects and complexities of local and regional contexts. The continued use of decontextualized, raw data is likely only to perpetuate and extend cycles of disadvantage and perceived failure.
  3. As well as highlighting effective collaboration between schools in contradiction of the NPP claim cited above, qualitative research conducted in the North East alongside this analysis highlighted the deleterious effects of the divide rhetoric on morale among school staff, children and young people in the North. Negative characterisations of regions can affect self-esteem and self-realisation on a large scale and obscure achievements. This is why it is vital to counter crude binary oppositions such as the north-south divide, which distract us from focusing us on more important issues such as finding better ways to support children and young people to learn and develop.


  • Blanden, J, Greaves, E, Gregg, P, Macmillan, L and Sibieta, L (2015) Understanding the improved performance of disadvantaged pupils in London Available at:
  • Greaves, E, Macmillan, L and Sibieta, L (2014) Lessons from London schools for attainment gaps and social mobility. London: Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. Available at:
  • Hayes, S., Jopling, M. and Gul, R. (2018) What have the changes made to primary and secondary assessment frameworks since 2014 done to the ‘London effect’ in school performance? London Review of Education, 16,3, 491-506.
  • Jopling, M. (2015) How to close the north-south divide between secondary schools, The Conversation, 2 December 2015.
  • Jopling, M. (2018) Is there a North–South divide between schools in England? Management in Education 33(1), 37-40.
  • Leckie, G. and Goldstein, H. (2018) Should we account for pupil background in school value-added models? A study of Progress 8 and school accountability in England. Bristol: Bristol Working Papers in Education 11/2018.
  • Northern Powerhouse Partnership (2018) Educating the North: Driving Ambition across the Powerhouse. Available at: