Issues & Ideas | 13th March 2015

Inner city schools do better than ones in less deprived rural and suburban areas

Anyone working to tackle educational disadvantage needs to move beyond simple notions of ‘poor outcomes in deprived areas’.

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The current consensus in education is that outcomes are worse in deprived areas, and the focus has tended to be on inner city areas of deprivation.

But since the transformation in inner London’s schools, one of the most deprived parts of the country now has some of the best educational outcomes. The debate needs to move on.

Outcomes aren’t simply linked to deprivation. New analysis of a little-used dataset shows that the greatest variation in educational outcomes is between different types of deprived area, rather than between the most and least deprived areas.

Outcomes aren’t simply linked to deprivation.

Rather than defining areas as simply more or less deprived, the Output Area Classification (OAC) sorts individual neighbourhoods into one of eight different ‘area types’, based on a range of Census data – from the age of residents, to the types of homes they live in, to the types of jobs they do.

Areas that are similarly deprived don’t necessarily belong to the same area type. In fact, OAC’s real power is that it distinguishes between deprived central London and the deprived fringes of Southampton; between the affluent suburbs of south Manchester and the affluent villages of the home counties.

OAC reveals just how dramatically the map of educational disadvantage is being redrawn. Pupils attending schools in ‘cosmopolitan’ inner city areas outperform those in ‘hard pressed’ outer urban areas by almost a grade and a half in every GCSE they sit – even though both of these contexts are similarly deprived. Across the country, inner city areas of deprivation also outperform suburban and rural areas that are significantly less deprived.

The data also show that young people in ethnically diverse, inner city deprived areas make the fastest progress at school, while their rural peers make the slowest progress. The gap is even more dramatic for pupils who start secondary school behind their peers.

How does existing research explain these differences? At present the evidence is piecemeal. My own research identifies significant differences in the likelihood of young people aspiring to highly skilled jobs, depending on whether they live in a deprived inner city neighbourhood or in a more isolated area at the edge of the city.

Pupils in ‘cosmopolitan’ inner city areas outperform those in ‘hard pressed’ outer urban areas.

Data from Understanding Society shows that inner city parents are more likely than those on the urban fringes to help with their children’s homework. Meanwhile, recent studies of London’s success flag up the positive effect of ethnic diversity on inner urban schools.

Anyone working to tackle educational disadvantage needs to move beyond simple notions of ‘poor outcomes in deprived areas’. Instead, we need to pay more attention to the nuances of local context and how these shape young people’s lives.

What are the features of deprived inner city areas – once bottom of the pile – that support such high levels of pupil progress and attainment? Why do schools in deprived outer urban neighborhoods and those in relatively less deprived places struggle in comparison?

As the map of educational disadvantage is redrawn, we will increasingly need to turn to new contexts – the edges of cities, rural areas, and coastal towns – for answers.

Sam Baars is a researcher for LKMco, an education think-tank.