Geographical inequality in education has grown over 30 years, study finds
Large numbers of children are underachieving at school because of a growing regional inequality in education, which is having a damaging effect on life chances, according to new research.
A report by the independent thinktank Social Market Foundation says geographical inequality in educational outcomes has grown over the last 30 years. While 70% of pupils in London now achieve five A*-C GCSEs, 63% manage the same in Yorkshire and Humber.
The disparity in attainment is already evident by the age of 11, at the end of primary school. For children born in 2000, where they live is a more powerful predictor of academic success than it was for children born in 1970, the research claims.
Family income has long been recognised as a key factor influencing academic outcomes. Policies such as the pupil premium have been introduced to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds with extra funding, but educational experts are increasingly concerned about regional differences.
While London in particular has seen a big improvement in its GCSE performance in recent years, thanks in part to policy initiatives such as the London Challengeand the positive contribution of ethnic diversity in the capital and other major cities, children in other regions continue to underachieve.
Last month the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, spoke of a “deeply troubling” educational divide in England, with children in the north and Midlands much less likely to attend a good or outstanding secondary school than their peers in the south.
Ofsted’s annual report on the state of the country’s schools identified 16 poorly performing local authority areas where pupils achieve lower than average GCSE grades and make less than average progress. All but three are in the north and Midlands.
Launching the SMF report on Tuesday, former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said: “What is now becoming clear is that inequality in education comes in many shapes and sizes. It is not just the relative wealth of parents that holds large numbers of bright kids back; it is postcode inequality, too. What part of the country a child grows up in has a real impact on their life chances.”
The SMF research analysed how well children aged 11 performed over three generations – those born in 1958, 1970 and 2000 – using verbal reasoning tests.
“For the youngest group – those who are in secondary school today – there were stark differences in performance in different regions,” said Clegg. “Those living in London, the south-east and the north-west had the highest proportion of high scores. Whereas those living in the north-east, Yorkshire and the West Midlands had the highest proportions of poor scores.
“We may live on a small island, but which corner of it our children call home makes a huge difference to their life chances.”
The former leader of the Liberal Democrats added: “It is a damning indictment of our society that a child born today stands less chance of realising their potential if they are born in a different part of our country to another child.
“For people my age, the idea that our children’s generation may be the first not to do as well as their parents is deeply troubling. But that is the reality for millions of parents worried about their children’s education.”
Clegg announced the launch of a new cross-party commission to examine the causes and effects of inequality in education at primary and secondary schools in England and Wales, focusing in particular on the growing influence of region on academic success. It will report its findings next year.
The SMF research also looked into the impact of family income on academic outcomes, and reported that only 40% of the most disadvantaged children who received free schools meals (FSM) achieved five GCSEs at A*-C, compared with 70% of their wealthier non-FSM peers.
Although the attainment gap between rich and poor children appears to have narrowed over the last decade using the measure of five good GCSEs, the report said that if the government’s more demanding measure – five good GCSEs including English and maths – was used, “progress is no longer observable”.
The report also looked at the influence of ethnicity and found that more than 85% of Chinese pupils gattained five good GCSEs compared with 59% of black Caribbean pupils. It also highlighted already widespread concerns about underachievement among white pupils – particularly from poor backgrounds – who have “fallen from over-performers to under-performers on average over the three decades”.
Responding to the report, the Department for Education said educational reforms had resulted in 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools since 2010. The DfE also claimed the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had fallen at both primary and secondary schools.
“However, we recognise that there is more to do,” a department spokesman said. “We are expanding the Teach First and Schools Direct programmes and launching the National Teaching Service which will mean more great teachers in schools in every corner of the country so that we can extend opportunity to every single child and ensure all schools can recruit the teachers they need.
“The pupil premium, worth £2.5bn this year, is providing vital support to disadvantaged children and helping ensure every child, regardless of their background, is given the opportunity to fulfil their potential.”
SMF director Emran Mian said: “While parental income remains very important, this new research shows that where you live plays a bigger role in determining educational achievement.”
“Our new research also shows that the story around ethnic origin and education has become much more complex. Previously, children from all non-white backgrounds did less well. Now, children from some ethnic groups, including Chinese and Indian children, do better than the average, while others – including black Caribbean and poor white children – do worse.”
Stephen Gorard, professor of education at Durham University, said the SMF research was right to draw attention to a difference in school outcomes between the south, Midlands and north-east.