Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said too many schools in these areas had failed to match the improvements in results elsewhere in England as he warned of a “catastrophe of neglect” blighting the life chances of thousands of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Mr Twigg suggested the isolation of some coastal towns and remote northern schools was an obstacle to recruiting talented teachers and heads, while schools were also affected by the long-term decline in England’s seaside holiday resorts and the industries of the North.
He highlighted Hull as a city where less than half of pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths and North East Lincolnshire as being an area where poor pupils’ exam results were more likely to be in the bottom quarter of the country, than the national average.
In a speech setting out a vision for “one nation education” Mr Twigg called for the number of top graduates recruited to teach in challenging areas under the Teach First scheme to be doubled to 2,000 a year.
He said Ministers should establish a series of regional “school challenges” in the areas affected, to repeat the success of a school improvement initiative which is credited with transforming results in London’s schools.
Labour is also considering offering incentives, including a university tuition fee refund, for teachers who commit themselves to work in northern cities and coastal areas for at least two years.
Speaking in Westminster last night, he said: “I want to talk about an arc of under-achievement which is blighting the life chances of thousands of children and young people.”
He added: “There is also an arc of under-achievement that includes a number of northern towns and cities in England – including some schools in places such as Hull, Blackpool and Knowsley.
“In these areas, fewer than half of all pupils get five good GCSE grades A* to C, including English and maths, and they do not make the progress you would expect of pupils.
“In many areas, it is white working-class children who are being held back. In the most recent set of GCSE data, white pupils on free school meals were the worst performers.”
He said that fewer than 30 per cent of white pupils on free school meals got five good GCSEs including English and maths compared with 44 per cent of black pupils, nearly half of Asian pupils, and 74 per cent of Chinese pupils on free school meals.
Mr Twigg added: “We must never accept the attitude which says ‘you don’t know what we are working with – you can’t turn coal into diamond’.”
He criticised the Government’s drive to open up academies to raise standards as being one dimensional and he also dismissed the suggestion that improved exam results were because of “grade inflation.”
“We made great strides in Government,” he said. “In particular to raise levels of literacy and numeracy at all ages, and to provide more children with the best start in life by investing in Sure Start and improving primary schools.
“What I am most proud of is the way in which the gap between the richest and poorest pupils was narrowed by a Labour Government....
“Between 2006 and 2010, the gap closed by one sixth of a grade – and these were in subjects which now form part of the E-Bacc – sciences, modern languages, maths, English, history and geography.
“So let’s end the total myth that the improvements over the last decade were because of grade inflation, or so-called ‘mickey mouse’ subjects. Pupils, particularly from poorer backgrounds did better – because of school reform, more and better teachers and a focus on the early years.”
Despite this he said there was still a “shocking” divide” between students from richer and poorer backgrounds.
On the Government’s academy drive, he added: “Academies can and do work, and we should not oppose them on ideological grounds. But neither should we dogmatically prescribe them. The most important factor in a school’s success is the quality of the head teacher.
“If a change of governance can attract a better head and teachers, then we should examine that, but it is not the only solution.
“We should also celebrate those schools that achieve great things without becoming academies.”
Mr Twigg was speaking at the Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture last night.