Pupils in smaller towns have better educational attainment on average – ONS

A larger share of small towns have low levels of income deprivation, analysis found.

Eleanor Busby
Tuesday 25 July 2023 18:43 BST
The analysis looked at the educational attainment of pupils who sat their GCSEs in the 2012 to 2013 school year (PA)
The analysis looked at the educational attainment of pupils who sat their GCSEs in the 2012 to 2013 school year (PA)

Pupils in small towns in England have better educational attainment on average than their peers in larger towns and cities, an analysis has suggested.

Students from cities outside London – except from Brighton and Hove – do less well than pupils from towns of all sizes across England, according to research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The analysis, which looks at the educational attainment of pupils who sat their GCSEs in the 2012 to 2013 school year, said differences in incomes are part of the reason why young people in smaller towns secured better outcomes.

Smaller towns in England have a higher average attainment score partly because a larger share of these towns have low levels of income deprivation, the research suggested.

The ONS used a score that summarises the educational attainment of young people at different points throughout their education to compare towns.

One reason for this may be the link between levels of deprivation and educational attainment as there tends to be more deprivation in larger towns and cities than in small towns

Richard Prothero, ONS statistician

A score of 0 was the average score of all areas, while negative scores reflected poorer than average performance and positive scores reflected better than average attainment.

The ONS analysis, which uses Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data collected by the Department for Education (DfE), concluded that small towns had an average score of 0.4 and large towns had an average score of -0.9.

While smaller towns had a better average score, they also saw the widest range in scores, the research found.

Thurnscoe in South Yorkshire had a score of -10, while Chorleywood in Hertfordshire had a score of 9.4.

Just 36% of pupils in Thurnscoe achieved five A* to C grade GCSEs including English and Maths in the school year of 2012 to 2013, while 87% did in Chorleywood, the analysis suggested.

Among the top 10% of towns in England with the highest educational attainment scores, none had high levels of income deprivation, the ONS said.

The ONS looked at the cohort of students who sat their GCSEs in the 2012 to 2013 school year as “they are the most recent pupils for whom data exists on their progress after school, up to age 22 years”.

Richard Prothero, the lead statistician for the ONS analysis, said: “It’s the first time ONS has looked at young people’s educational attainment by the size of town in which they went to school.

“Those in smaller towns generally did better than those in larger towns, while those in cities, other than London and Brighton and Hove, typically had lower attainment than those in towns.

“One reason for this may be the link between levels of deprivation and educational attainment as there tends to be more deprivation in larger towns and cities than in small towns.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “This analysis demonstrates how closely aligned educational outcomes are to levels of deprivation.

“Raising attainment is therefore dependent not only on ensuring that schools in areas of high deprivation are well supported and resourced, but also on wider efforts to tackle poverty and improve local economies.”

Northwood in the London borough of Hillingdon is the small town with the highest educational attainment score recorded by the ONS (11.9), followed by East Horsley in Surrey and Olney in Buckinghamshire (both 10.8), then Burley-in-Wharfedale in West Yorkshire (9.9).

For medium-sized towns, Harpenden in Hertfordshire had the highest score (11.0), followed by Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire (10.0) and West Bridgford in Nottinghamshire (8.6).

In the ONS large towns category, Sutton Coldfield topped the list (6.4), followed by Solihull (6.1) and St Albans (5.8).

Brighton and Hove is the only city with a positive attainment score (0.7), the ONS analysis suggested.

Along with Thurnscoe, the small towns with the lowest scores are Sheerness in Kent (-9.8), Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in Northumberland (-9.6) and New Ollerton in Nottinghamshire (-9.4).

Among medium-sized towns, Great Yarmouth in Norfolk had the lowest score (-7.6), below Havant in Hampshire (-7.1) and Ryde on the Isle of Wight (-6.7).

Basildon is at the bottom of the list for large towns (-5.4), just below Burnley (-4.7) and Hastings (-4.5).

Nottingham and Portsmouth are the cities with the lowest score (-4.5).

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are determined to improve the quality of education for all children wherever they live, and we have driven up standards for pupils since the cohort in this study sat their GCSEs in the 2012/13 academic school year.

“We have identified 55 Education Investment Areas with the weakest educational outcomes where we are making additional investment to boost improvements, including £86 million to support academy trusts to develop their capacity to take on underperforming schools.

“We also support the most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils through pupil premium funding, which is increasing to more than £2.9 billion in 2023/24 – the highest cash terms rate since this funding began.”

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