As the first person in her family to go to university and currently the deputy headteacher at Mercia School in Sheffield, Ruth Hollingsworth has first-hand insight into the issue of education inequality and tells us how closing the north/south gap will give more Sheffield students the chance to get into top jobs in the future.

Every child deserves a great education, no matter where they are born.

But those from the south have more chance of getting one – and a top job – than a Sheffield child.

As deputy headteacher at Sheffield’s Mercia School, and the first person in my family to go to university, I know that’s just not right. It’s social injustice that needs tackling.

We have largely accepted this inequality for years, but it is time for change. In 2022, the proportion of GCSE results at grade 7 or above in Yorkshire was 22.4 per cent. In London, it was 32.6 per cent.

Ruth Hollingsowrth
Headteacher at Mercia School, Ruth Hollingsworth

That is not about intelligence; it’s inequality. How can we in Sheffield start to close this north/south divide and secure our children places in the best universities? What levels the playing field?

I believe one of the first things it comes down to is having high expectations. High expectations of children at school ensures behaviour is better, and that helps everyone work hard. In this culture, aspirations are the norm.

Good behaviour also attracts high-quality teachers, who want to teach. Mercia teachers have studied at Oxbridge or Russell Group universities, they are masters of their subjects. Good behaviour also means children are less likely to be bullied or use mobile phones. It means they learn more.

The GCSE figures speak for themselves. In August, we celebrated 90 per cent of our students getting between grades 9-5 in English and maths. A fifth of all grades were at the top possible grade 9. And six pupils got all 9s, something only around 1,000 students in the country achieved. We established a culture of success and pupils achieved it. We are rivals for the south.

Post GCSE is when students start to focus on what they want to do for a career.

Last month we opened our new sixth form, Mercia Collegiate, to 120 students from all backgrounds. They all have big dreams – wanting jobs in medicine, or architecture. We have ambitious young people just like in the south.

“That is not about intelligence; it’s inequality. How can we in Sheffield start to close this north/south divide and secure our children places in the best universities? What levels the playing field?”

To help them succeed, and close the gap, we do things differently. Our two-day inauguration covers how to revise efficiently, goal setting and university applications.

As well as taking A-levels, students are in professional schools focused on being immersed in their future career. They might want to be a doctor, but what kind of doctor? If they want to take a psychology degree, which is the best course? This is the level of expectation we set and support.

They all undertake work experience. They will study alone, collaboratively and until 5pm due to our longer school day. The aim is to match them with the best degree for their ambitions and prepare them for the reality of life at top universities.

Sadly, students from a working class background are more likely to drop out of higher education. We know what makes it hard, and I have experienced that.

Our goal is to ensure when our students arrive at university, they know what to expect.

mercia school
Inside Mercia School

Here, we have many families who for the first time can believe their child will experience higher education. It’s a big step for everyone. We work to take parents with us because it helps children in the long run. Mobility is for the whole family.

Getting a degree from a leading university helps students get the top jobs they deserve while improving diversity. More representation is needed, the north is part of that.

All we’ve done is help put students in the best position – through hard work, high expectations and prioritising kindness – to fulfil their ambitions.

That’s the best thing any teacher can achieve. I am so proud to have a part in it.

Mercia Collegiate’s next open days are on October 14 and November 23. Book via

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