Leading Article: A fresh challenge for the North

There are some clear messages from this year's examination results. First, a regional breakdown of the increase in grade-A passes at A-level revealed a glaring gap between the performance in London and the South-east, and the North-east. Indeed, it seems that the further north you go, the lower the rise in A-grade passes.

At first sight, this could be interpreted as deprived northern regions not doing as well as the affluent South-east – where, incidentally, there is also a higher concentration of independent and state selective schools. On closer examination, however, you see that, in London in particular, the percentage of A-grades awarded increased even in the more deprived areas.

One of the main reasons for this is the London Challenge, set up by the Government to improve results in the capital's schools. It targeted resources energetically and created the Teach First scheme, which recruited high-flying graduates who had not previously considered teaching as a career into London schools. It has paid dividends and is being extended to Manchester and the Black Country in the hope that it can improve standards there. The evidence of this summer's exams suggest that there is a need for a Northern Challenge to target Yorkshire and Humberside and other parts of the North-east.

The other piece of news from the exam season is the revelation that GCSE candidates are, on average, taking exams in fewer subjects now than previously. Finally, schools, pupils and parents seem to be realising that no one is going to be impressed by quantity alone and that it is better for pupils to do well in the subjects of their choice than to have clocked up 11 or 12 passes. A similar process is going on with A-levels – with AS-levels helping young people to drop the subjects they are weaker in. The message is that pupils (and their teachers) are getting smarter about the examination system.

It is also is a welcome sign that some of the pressures of over-testing and over-examination are being learnt – although ministers might note as they review the national curriculum tests that there is still some way to go.

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