Children in London and the south-east are 57 percent more likely to get into universities ranked among the top third than children in the north of England, according to research by the children’s commissioner for England, The Guardian reports.

Following the launch of a year-long investigation into why many children in the north aren’t fulfilling their potential, Anne Longfield said the under-performance of secondary schools in the north of England was of “huge concern”, with poorer pupils getting significantly worse GCSE results. “London and the south-east are racing ahead,” she said.

Longfield says she wants to understand why the north-east had the best primary schools in the country, but the lowest adult employment rate: 71.1% compared with 78% in the south-east, according to September figures from the Office for National Statistics.

Only 34% of disadvantaged children in the north of England overall get five GCSEs A*-C, including English and maths, compared with 48% of disadvantaged children in London.

Of the 20 worst performing local authorities in England for GCSE results, 12 are in the north, with Knowsley and Blackpool at the bottom and Bradford, Middlesbrough, Kingston upon Hull and Manchester also struggling. Just one northern council area makes the top 20: Trafford in Greater Manchester.

Of primary schools in the northern regions of Redcar and Cleveland, 95% are deemed “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted. But the same local authority is in the bottom 20 of all 149 council areas in England when it comes to the progress a pupil makes from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school.

The north-east is far better at helping young people into apprenticeships, however: 20% of school leavers in Hartlepool become apprentices, compared with just 4% in London. Longfield commented:

“We see that children start well but a gap emerges while they are at secondary school. That, coupled with the paucity of job prospects in some areas, seem to combine to really open up a gap that many children can’t get beyond.”

She said she is considering the idea of companies from more affluent areas offering work experience placements to students from poorer areas with higher levels of unemployment. Pupils at a school in Bradford recently complained to her that their work placement scheme had been withdrawn due to budget cuts, the commissioner said.

Explaining the knock-on effect for the further education opportunities, Longfield said:

“School leavers in London and the south-east are at least 57% more likely to go to a top-third university.”

Preliminary research carried out by Longfield’s team has found that the north of England’s education system is not performing poorly across the region. Children in the north-west performed better than their counterparts in London in verbal comprehension tests at age eleven, according to analysis of data collected as part of the Institute of Education’s Millennium Cohort Study. North-west children also have among the lowest instances of mental illness in the country, though those in the north-east and Yorkshire fare less well.

A succession of experts have expressed concerns about the north-south divide in education. The outgoing chief inspector of schools Sir Michael Wilshaw, last year blamed poor teaching for the “troubling gap between the performance of secondary schools in the north and Midlands and secondary schools in the rest of the country”.

Last month Sir Nick Weller, who runs an academy chain with schools in the north, advised the government to pilot a new “teach north” scheme to attract and retain talented newly qualified teachers in disadvantaged schools in the region. Schools in the north are receiving less funding per pupil than those in London, despite having lower attainment rates and serving communities with greater disadvantage, Weller reported in A Northern Powerhouse Schools Strategy, commissioned by the Department for Education.