Beyond the inner-city: underperformance in the UK education system

West Berkshire is one of the most affluent local authorities in the country. On the Indices of Deprivation it ranks as the 287th most deprived out of 326. Yet in 2012 only 21.9% of pupils eligible for free school meals left school with five good GCSE’s, putting it second from bottom in the country. In many ways West Berkshire neatly illustrates what Ofsted Chief Michael Wilshaw said when launching the Unseen Children report last year. According to Wilshaw:

Poor, unseen children can be found in mediocre schools the length and breadth of our country. They are often found in leafy suburbs, market towns and seaside resorts. They can be found in comparatively prosperous communities, many of them achieving far less than they should. They are labelled, buried in lower sets, consigned as often as not to indifferent teaching. They coast through education until – at the earliest opportunity – they sever their ties with it.

These children are not unseen in our best schools, which have good knowledge and high expectations of every child. But in more complacent schools such children do badly. So, let me be clear; disadvantage and poor achievement are not necessarily tied to urban deprivation and inner city blight.

Looking at the data it is becomingly increasingly clear that Wilshaw is right. The underperformance of poorer pupils is most acute outside of our major cities, often in places not traditionally associated with endemic underachievement. Moreover, there are huge variations between the performance of these pupils in different parts of the country. A pupil living in the least affluent part of London leaves school with eight C grades at GCSE on average. For a similar area in the East of England the average is slightly worse than eight D grades.

This gap in achievement is not just confined to the performance of the least affluent. Many of the worst performing local authorities in terms of overall attainment are found well away from the inner city. Amongst the worst performing are places like Norfolk and the Isle of Wight. A similar picture emerges when you look at university progression.

The locus of significant educational underperformance seems to have shifted from the major cities to smaller towns and cities. Similarly, pronounced underachievement of the least affluent seems to have diffused into the more prosperous parts of the country. We can no longer talk of underachievement as primarily an inner city problem.

The bigger picture

This is not a phenomenon that is confined to education. There is growing recognition that some of the most entrenched social deprivation is to be found not in the urban sprawl but in provincial towns. Last year the Centre for Social Justice published a report looking at social breakdown in five seaside towns. The report argues that despite the fact that ‘cities have come to embody how we view modern deprivation and poverty’ much pronounced disadvantage can be found in previously prosperous coastal towns. The highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the UK, for example, can be found in a part of Great Yarmouth – a town where as many as one in three adults do not have any form of qualifications.

Trends in crime rates (which are generally falling) also support the view that social ills are increasingly shifting away from the big cities. The murder rate in metropolitan areas has declined five times faster than for the rest of the country.

Nor is this a problem that is limited to the UK. Suburban poverty in the US has started to attract attention, at least amongst researchers. Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube ended up writing Confronting Suburban Poverty in America after discovering in 2006 – to their initial surprise – that there were more Americans living in poverty in the suburbs than in the big cities. This matters according to Kneebone and Berube because ‘as poverty becomes increasingly regional in its scope and reach, it challenges conventional approaches that the nation has taken when dealing with poverty’. Their argument is that many approaches to tackling poverty in the US assume a level of infrastructure and expertise that is simply not realistic outside of inner-city urban areas.

An education policy fit for the provinces?

Given that there are big social forces at play here it would be unrealistic to expect education policy to counteract them completely. Schools capacity to compensate for the context in which they operate is ultimately limited. Nonetheless, it is worth considering whether current approaches to education policy are any more suited to the challenges schools in non-urban areas face than the conventional approaches lamented by Kneebone and Berube across the Atlantic are suited to tackling suburban poverty.

There certainly seems to be a significant dollop of metropolitan-bias in the education system. To start with the obvious example, the current system for allocating school funding is a mess. Funding per pupil ranges from £4,000 to £7,000 and not all of this variation can be accounted for by differences in pupil characteristics (see this from the IFS for a good analysis of the current system). There is clear evidence that these variations penalise schools outside of urban areas. As David Laws pointed out in a recent announcement, the current system means that a ‘school in Birmingham with only 3% of pupils receiving free school meals (FSM) gets higher funding per head than a school in Shropshire with over 30% of FSM eligible pupils’. Unfortunately in the same announcement Laws effectively put on hold plans to move towards a consistent national formula, instead announcing a £350 million boost to funding that will benefit some underfunded areas. It seems the school funding system will continue to exacerbate the regional variations in school performance for the foreseeable future.

The governments flagship free schools programme also seems to be doing little to tackle low attainment in the provinces. Free schools are overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas. More than a third of free schools that have either opened or will open by the end of the year are in London. By September the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham alone will have more (7) than the whole of the North East (5) (full data here). Whatever contribution they make to the standard of education this impact will be felt primarily in areas that are already performing relatively well.

Moreover, the whole idea of choice driving up standards which underpins the free schools programme seems to be urban-centric. Genuine parental choice might be a reality in London or Birmingham where there is high population density (and therefore lots of schools) and excellent public transport, but in many parts of the country geography will always be the primary determinant of where parents send their kids to school. The free school agenda lacks any coherent narrative about how it can improve school standards in small towns.

Similar doubts could also be raised about whether other in-vogue policies are cut out to address regional underperformance. Teach First are starting to make inroads into some non-urban areas but the prospects of them parachuting bright graduates into Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Somerset in anywhere near the kind of numbers that might actually make a difference are incredibly slim. The sad truth is that convincing graduates to spend at least 2 years in Skegness or Great Yarmouth is far more difficult than convincing them to spend 2 years in London or Birmingham.

Initiatives that aim to foster collaboration and knowledge-sharing between schools will need to adapt if they are to replicate the apparent success (I’m hugely sceptical about the causal claims made around London Challenge, but that’s a story for another blog) of the London Challenge. The proximity between schools seems to have been an important factor in making such collaboration practical and there are plenty of schools across the country that don’t have an Outstanding school nearby.

Conclusion

Despite the growing recognition that low educational achievement is increasingly concentrated outside of big cities our approach to education policy still seems to be framed in the context of underperforming inner-city schools. This is particularly true when it comes to efforts to improve the attainment of the least affluent. What’s needed is a recognition that often the same problem in a different context requires a different solution. Our approach to school improvement needs to take account of the fact that the areas that are most in need of improvement now are very different to those that needed it in the 1990s. It is imperative that we adapt approach accordingly.

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2 Responses to Beyond the inner-city: underperformance in the UK education system

  1. Mike Firth says:

    ……………and what is anyone with a responsibility to change the funding mechanism doing about it? We know the answer! Leave it for the next generation/government to solve.

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