Ofsted has launched a series of inspections in Northumberland in a bid to discover why there are a disproportionate number of under-performing secondary schools in the county.
Inspectors also aim to find out why the attainment for children eligible for free school meals is well below other children in the region.
Berwick Academy and Berwick Middle School - both of which were rated “satisfactory” at their last inspections - are among 17 schools in Northumberland that have been visited by inspectors this week.
The exercise marks a concerted programme of action by Ofsted to establish why disadvantaged children are not being supported to achieve, and why children in some parts of the country have a much lower chance of attending a good or better secondary phase school compared to areas with a similar demographic.
The latest data, from August 31 this year, shows that 37% of the county’s secondary schools - which include middle deemed secondary - were judged less than good at their last inspection, compared with 27% across England.
In 2012, only 61% of children on free school meals (FSM) achieved Level 4 in English and maths at Key Stage 2, compared to 82% of their non-FSM peers in the authority. The picture for children in secondary schools is worse – only 26% of pupils on FSM were able to achieve five or more A* to C GCSE grades including English and maths compared to 62% for other pupils in the county.
Ofsted’s Nick Hudson, regional director for the North East, said: “While I recognise that primary schools in Northumberland are doing well, I am very concerned that children on free school meals in the county are not getting the education they deserve
“The proportion of children on free school meals in the county is relatively low and therefore it is even more of a worry that there is a significant attainment gap for these children compared to their peers within the authority, in the North East region and nationally,” Mr Hudson added. “This is an unacceptable situation. “That is why my inspectors will be visiting a number of schools in Northumberland to find out why the pupil premium is not being effectively used to help disadvantaged children, as well as examine the underperformance of secondary schools in the area.”
He added: “We will be paying particular attention to the effectiveness and impact of the support these schools are receiving from the local authority.”
Northumberland County Council has pledged to use the findings of the inspections to “review and improve” the support it provides to schools.
A spokesperson for the authority said: “We understand the challenges and we’re committed to achieving the best for all our students and supporting our schools to provide a high quality education.
“We were delighted to welcome David Laws, minister of education, to Northumberland earlier this year to discuss the performance gap of pupil premium pupils. “Recently headteachers and chairs of governors of all our schools currently judged satisfactory attended a conference run by Ofsted in Northumberland on ‘getting to good’.
“Northumberland has some significant challenges, low funding levels, a range of educational structures and the challenge of sparse rural populations. We will use the findings of these inspections to review and improve the support we provide to schools.”