Pupils let down by affluent councils

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS of middle-class pupils are being let down by their local education authorities, according to figures revealed in a far-reaching study published today.

The Audit Commission report shows startling differences in standards in local authorities serving similar areas. Schools in some affluent authorities are coasting by on standards which are no better than those in some of the poorest.

Figures for the 15 most affluent councils show that the worst-performing affluent council, Lincolnshire, does no better in its GCSE results than Camden in London which comes top of the 15 poorest councils.

Poverty is not necessarily a bar to high standards. Schools' academic performance in some poor authorities is twice as good as that in other similar areas.

Camden has 40 per cent of pupils getting five or more good GCSEs. Southwark, another London borough, comes bottom of the 15 poorest authorities with 20 per cent yet the difference in deprivation is much less.

The proportion of pupils receiving free school meals - the figure used to measure deprivation - is 37 per cent in Camden and 49 per cent in Southwark.

The London borough of Hackney, where ministers last year sent in a hit squad to sort out the education authority, does surprisingly well. It comes seventh, though the proportion of pupils taking free school meals figure is 55 per cent. Kensington and Chelsea, where it is 44 per cent, comes second.

Buckinghamshire, Kingston-upon-Thames, North Yorkshire and Dorset come top of the affluent councils while the East Riding of Yorkshire, Warwickshire and Hereford and Worcester join Lincolnshire at the bottom.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, welcomed the report. "It is remarkable to find that some of the least deprived areas in the country are producing GCSE comparable to those in the most deprived areas. This shows that poverty is no excuse for poor standards and that some better areas are guilty of coasting."

The report shows that councils are issuing statements for pupils with special educational needs more quickly than they were a year ago, but complains that there are still some authorities in which the wait is unacceptably long. In Barnsley, almost no statements were produced within the Government's 18-week time target. Sandwell, Sefton, Stockport and Salford do little better.

Paul Vevers, the commission's director of audit, said: "What can explain the performance of the bottom six or seven authorities? Councillors must draw up an urgent action plan."

Under the last government, the study shows, funding per pupil fell sharply in real terms between 1993 and 1997. Primary school spending fell by 2 per cent and secondary by 4 per cent. But the study emphasises that money does not guarantee good results. Lincolnshire, for instance, spends pounds 2,405 per pupil while Buckinghamshire spends pounds 2027 and Camden spends pounds 300 less than Southwark.