The Social Market Foundation (SMF) has found that the geographical area in which children attend school has remained a significant factor in determining attainment levels since the 1970s – and in some cases, more so than previously.
The research was carried out for the think tank’s newly launched Commission on Inequality in Education – a cross-party initiative chaired by former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. Its initial findings [PDF] were based on a comparison of 2013/14 GCSE results in England and Wales with data taken during the British Cohort Study of 1970, including the 1985/86 O-Level results of 17,000 children born in 1970.
It also compared cognitive test scores taken during the same British Cohort Study when participants were aged 11, with similar tests taken by children born in 2000 as part of the Millennium Cohort Study.
The SMF found that variations in attainment became apparent by the end of primary school, even after adjusting for background factors such as ethnicity and family income. The exam scores for both sets of 16-year-olds seemed to suggest that inequalities in attainment between different regions had either remained in place or become worse over time, with parts of the North East, Yorkshire and the Midlands persistently under performing compared to a post-70s surge in the academic performance of pupils from similar backgrounds in London.
A more complex story
The research also found evidence of a persistent performance gap between well-off and poorer pupils, with the proportion of those achieving five A* to C grades currently 40% among pupils who receive free school meals, compared to 70% of those who don’t.
The researchers further found that academic performance continued to vary a great deal between pupils of different ethnicities, citing the statistic that 85% of Chinese pupils currently attain five good GCSEs compared to 59% of Black Caribbean pupils. The findings also suggested that ethnic inequalities had changed a great deal over time – Asian pupils born in 1970 appeared to perform poorly, while Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi born in 1997/98 emerged as the best performers.
The average performance of white pupils meanwhile appeared to move in the opposite direction, from overperformers to underperformers over the past three decades.
According SMF director, Emran Mian, “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.”