OFSTED published their annual report last week. In common with the recent White Paper ‘Education Excellence Everywhere’ the report emphasised geographical differences in the quality of schools arguing that higher attainment among children in London, and particularly among those from disadvantaged backgrounds, is due to the higher quality of schools in the capital. The improvement in children’s education in London is likely to have more than one cause. The emphasis placed on school quality by policy makers and some researchers has always seemed odd, however, because although there is certainly a link between school quality and education outcomes, all of the evidence is that schools are less important than families as a determinant of children’s education outcomes. As a rough rule of thumb between 20 percent of the variability in education outcomes is usually found between schools meaning that if all children went to the same school the overall variation in education outcomes would only go down by 20 percent. In contrast, around 50 percent of variation in children’s education outcomes is between families. In other words, family characteristics are much more important than schools as a factor influencing variation in children’s education outcomes.
This matters for our understanding of geographical differences in education in England because there are important differences in family characteristics between children in London and in other areas. In particular, children in London are more likely than those in other areas to live in families where an adult has a degree-level qualification. The figure below shows the proportion of adults in families with children who have a degree-level qualification using data from the 2011 Census (table DC5106EW) and the percentage of KS4 pupils in receipt of free school meals for local authorities in England in 2012. The figure shows that most local authorities in London are distinguished from other local authorities by the combination of a high proportion of pupils in receipt of free school meals and a high proportion of the adult population living in families with children who have a degree-level qualification. The combination of high proportions of children in receipt of free-school meals and a highly educated adult population might seem unusual but reflects the relatively low employment rates in London, including for adults with high qualifications (see Kaplanis 2010). Rather than reflecting an improvement in schools, another way of looking at the relatively good education outcomes of disadvantaged children in London is therefore to see children’s outcomes as a reflection of geographical differences in the characteristics of disadvantaged families with disadvantaged families in London being more likely to have high qualifications than in other areas. While I wouldn’t argue that this interpretation is conclusive it at least fits in with researchers view of processes in cities as generating inequalities rather than reducing inequalities for disadvantaged groups.
How about change over time. Is it possible to also explain changes in the attainment of children in London over the last decade in terms of changing family characteristics? The figure below shows the variation in the proportion of the population between 16 and 64 years of age who have a level 4 qualification using data from the Annual Population Survey. Although this is the qualifications of all adults and not only those in families with children, the figure shows that over the last decade the proportion of the workforce with a degree-level qualification has risen by over 15 percentage points in London in comparison to less than 10 percentage points in other regions. It seems possible therefore that the increase in the proportion of the adult population with high qualifications has been a factor in improving children’s education outcomes in London. The marked rise in adult qualifications in London is linked to wider processes of economic change as well as to the greater opportunity in cities to use skills and to major investments in infrastructure in London which have made the city more liveable for families. From a policy perspective this cautions against simply assuming that schools across the country will be able to reproduce the increase in attainment seen in London over the last decade. The tendency for cities to have high proportions of highly qualified adults is weak for cities in England outside of London and, in consequence, it is unlikely that other cities in England will be able to reproduce the recent improvement in schooling seen in London.