How GCSE results are affected by the city where students live

To depart from the cliche, here are some boys looking ambivalent as they receive their results. Image: Matt Cardy/Getty.

Today around half a million teenagers have received their GCSE results. Along with the now obligatory photos of students jumping for joy or weeping, the news will inevitably be dominated by debate about whether GCSEs are too easy/too hard/fit-for-purpose.

However, one serious issue likely to be overlooked in these discussions: the significant disparities in educational outcomes between different places, and how this affects both young people’s prospects and the economic prosperity of cities.

Our analysis of last year’s Department of Education GCSE data showed that attainment varied significantly between cities across the country. At the top end of the scale, two thirds of pupils in Gloucester gained five or more A* to C grades (including Maths and English) last year; in Burnley only 42 per cent of students achieved similar success.


Education secretary Nicky Morgan has vowed to tackle what she describes as “coasting schools” – those in which less than 60 percent of pupils gain five A*-C grades including English and Maths. Applying that target at a city-wide level shows that only 10 percent of English cities would meet the Government’s standards for attainment.

There are many factors which affect a student’s likelihood of success at GCSE level – but the strongest predictor is social background, with disadvantaged young people less likely to do well than their peers. In York, for example, only 29 percent of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds gained five or more good GCSEs, compared to 69 percent of their peers. Even more worryingly, the gap between disadvantaged students and their peers actually grows between primary and secondary school.

It follows, then, that GCSE attainment would be lower in cities such as Burnley, Hull and Barnsley, which are weaker economically, and which have a high proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But not only does poor GCSE performance in these cities reflect their economic weaknesses: it also entrenches them. Cities with low educational outcomes tend to have high rates of youth unemployment, and also struggle when it comes to entrepreneurship, productivity and business stock (the number of businesses in a place per capita). Addressing poor educational performance in cities is not only vital for improving their young people’s prospects in life – it’s also crucial for boosting the local economies of struggling places.

However, the example of London shows that social background should not be as a big factor in educational attainment as it currently is across the country. More than a fifth of pupils in the capital come from disadvantaged backgrounds – yet attainment rates in this group are higher in London than anywhere else in the country, with nearly 1 in 2 disadvantaged students gaining five good GCSEs.

Meanwhile, when we measure pupil progression rates (i.e. how many students make the expected academic progress predicted for them at the start of secondary school), the capital performs much better than other cities with high proportions of disadvantaged students. Some 78 percent of Londoners achieve the progress predicted for them in English, compared to 63 percent in Barnsley and 62 percent in Hull. The gap in even bigger in Maths, with 72 percent of Londoners achieving predicted progress, compared to only 50 percent in Barnsley.

This suggests that social background is not the only factor affecting poor education performance – and that the quality of schools in cities with weaker economies is also playing a part. But if the high performance of London’s disadvantaged students proves that social barriers to educational attainment can be overcome, unfortunately there is no clear consensus on how schools in the capital have managed to achieve this turnaround.

Getting to the bottom of that success could well offer valuable lessons to how other cities and regions. But whatever the reasons for London’s impressive educational outcomes, the disparities in GCSE results between different cities highlight the importance of tailoring educational policy to address the strengths and weakness of particular places, and of directing investment to those cities which are most in need.

Addressing the poor educational performance of many cities outside the South East should also be a top priority in the government’s efforts to rebalance the national economy, and form a part of initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse. Not only will improving education outcomes help secure a better future for young people: it will also be crucial in driving economic growth in places which are currently struggling.

Naomi Clayton is a senior analyst at the Centre for Cities. 


Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.