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The geography of social mobility

Yesterday’s DfE report Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential: a plan for improving social mobility through education put a strong emphasis on ‘place’, recognising that how young people ‘get on’ in life cannot easily be separated from the areas in which they grow up. I’ve blogged before, here and here, on the strong links between young people’s outcomes and the neighbourhoods they grow up in. Here, we’ve conducted new analysis on fresh data from UCAS to move the debate further.

‘Place’ and social mobility
Justine Greening promised that this week’s new social mobility strategy would be responsive to the context of local communities, and this is welcome. But aspects of ‘place’ – such as young people often being fiercely attached to their neighbourhood – make simplistic narratives of ‘social mobility’, and their expectation that young people can easily uproot themselves to capitalise on opportunities, quite problematic. I’ve argued so before here.

Even so, if ‘place’ is to be at the heart of our new social mobility strategy, we can do worse than try to develop a nuanced understanding of the types of places where young people’s outcomes fall short of their peers. This week UCAS released data from its 2017 End of Cycle Report which shows the entry rate to higher education (HE) of 18 year olds by parliamentary constituency. Constituencies cover mid-sized areas (compared to the small units of the POLAR classification and larger units like regions), and this makes them a handy geography for picking out geographical ‘hot spots’ and ‘cold spots’ in young people’s outcomes. As we’ve argued elsewhere, constituency-level data are also a useful tool when trying to mobilise political will behind a policy problem.

What do the data show?
Looking across all constituencies, there is a wide spread of HE entry rates, from the lowest (Glasgow North East, 19%) to the highest (Wimbledon, 81%). The largest increases in entry rates over the last decade appear to be in core metropolitan areas like Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham. In the capital, East London appears to have experienced the largest increase in entry rates.

Full map here

Beyond picking out the entry rates in individual constituencies, one way of looking for broader patterns is to categorise constituencies into ‘types’. When we do this based on the urban/rural mix in each constituency, we see that a particular set of constituencies (classified as ‘urban with minor conurbations’) have the lowest entry rate, on average – 35% compared to 42% across all constituencies.

If we give these ‘low participation’ constituencies a black border we can see they lie in a tightly focused cluster between Derby and Nottingham, and between Sheffield, Barnsley and Doncaster.

Full map here

These aren’t necessarily the individual constituencies with the lowest entry rates – they’re shown in red on the map, with notable clusters of low participation in the Thames Estuary, East Anglia, the South Wales Valleys and the Central Belt of Scotland. However, as far as there are types of constituency that seem to send relatively few young people on to higher education, there appears to be a distinct cluster of former mining areas in the centre of England.

Why might these areas be significant?
Young people growing up in inner-urban areas of large cities tend to face the highest levels of deprivation. However, inner-urban areas also give young people access to a range of amenities, host a wide mix of people and jobs, and have historically tended to receive the most policy focus – from regeneration programmes to teacher recruitment schemes. It appears that young people might face particular challenges growing up in smaller urban areas: the outskirts of cities, smaller towns, or the places where one conurbation ends and another begins. It might therefore be worth policy makers, Widening Participation initiatives and, perhaps, social mobility strategies, focusing more on these types of area in the future.

I originally wrote this blog post for LKMco.

The underrepresentation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils in higher education

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) children and young people face significant barriers throughout their education, which results in them being severely underrepresented in HE. Perhaps because there is still an urgent need to address the issues faced by these groups in primary and secondary education, there is limited existing research on Gypsies’, Roma and Travellers’ progression to university. However, to achieve educational equality for these groups they must be given the same choice and opportunity as their peers from other backgrounds. The first step towards increasing equality in HE is to investigate how issues in compulsory education impact on progression to HE to understand and address specific barriers which reduce GRT pupils’ participation in HE.

This report, commissioned by King’s College London, and co-authored with my LKMco colleagues Ellie Mulcahy, Loic Menzies and Kate Bowen-Viner, presents a summary of the current landscape and a review of the barriers to HE faced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. We draw on existing literature and our own research with academics, practitioners, members of the GRT communities and pupils to explore:

  • The definition of ‘Gypsy, Roma and Traveller’ and the various sub-groups described by this collective term
  • How these groups are distributed in the national and pupil population
  • Their current progress and attainment throughout primary and secondary education
  • The degree to which they are underrepresented in HE
  • The challenges and barriers they face in compulsory education which may impact on their participation in HE
  • The specific barriers they face in entering HE.

Throughout the report, we point towards potential responses to the challenges and make recommendations for schools, HEIs and for further research.

We launched the report at the 2017 Brilliant Club Annual Conference, and we received coverage on BBC Breakfast and in The Times and Schools Week.

The full report and research brief are available from the LKMco website.

White working class boys in the neoliberal meritocracy: the pitfalls of the ‘aspiration-raising’ agenda

I’ve just had a book chapter published as part of a collection on Masculinity and Aspiration in the Era of Neoliberal Education, edited by Garth Stahl, Joseph Nelson and Derron Wallace. The chapter is about white working class boys in the neoliberal meritocracy, and the pitfalls of the ‘aspiration-raising’ agenda. It’s available here on Google Books. Here’s a summary of my argument:

The great meritocracy
When she became British prime Minister in July 2016, the core narrative of Teresa May’s premiership was quick to emerge: “I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.” According to this notion of meritocracy, a just and fair society is one in which people’s outcomes are governed by two things: their skills, and the effort they are willing to exert.

‘Raising aspirations’
Young people’s aspirations (their desires for the future) play a key role in this view of society: if meritocracy requires people to work hard and use their talents, then it also requires that they are motivated to do so. Without ‘high aspirations’ there is no motivation to strive. For this reason, successive governments in the UK have focused on ‘raising’ young people’s aspirations, and this approach is key to oiling the wheels of the great meritocracy.

Neoliberal foundations
The policy focus on ‘raising aspirations’, and the underlying meritocratic ideal that outcomes are governed by hard work and ability, both have their roots in neoliberal thinking. As an ideology, neoliberalism demands that young people take responsibility for their life outcomes, they exercise free choice in governing those outcomes, and are willing to move freely in order to find the best use for their talents. However, despite their ideological unity there are fundamental tensions between each of these tenets of neoliberal meritocracy and the ‘raising aspirations’ agenda it has given rise to. These tensions are thrown into stark relief when we consider the experiences of white working class boys – a group singled out by Prime Minister May as demanding particular policy attention. My fieldwork with a group of white working class boys in an outer-urban estate in Manchester aimed to directly explore these tensions.

Mobility vs. identity
Firstly, the imperative to ‘raise aspirations’ often involves overriding young people’s place-based identities. For most young people, attending university and engaging with high-status professional, managerial and technical occupations requires some form of movement away from spatial, social, and cultural familiarities such as family, friends and neighbourhood. However, white working class boys often voice a strong attachment to their locality. Despite this, the neoliberal imperative to be ‘footloose’ is strongest for those in the most deprived contexts: young people attending school in areas with few highly skilled jobs and no nearby university face the greatest pressure to transcend their place-based identities in order to “get out” and “get on”.

‘High aspirations’ vs. individual choice
Secondly, a narrow definition of ‘high aspirations’ undermines the sanctity of individual choice. The neoliberal meritocracy holds that young people should be free to decide where they want their talents and hard work to take them. However, in reality the aspiration-raising agenda is highly prescriptive, with “high” aspirations defined narrowly in terms of pursuing higher education or high status professional occupations. This delegitimises aspirations that young people might have for local work, or to enter employment as soon as possible after completing compulsory education – a common thread linking the white working class boys that participated in my research.

‘Success for all’ vs. opportunities for the few
Thirdly, the neoliberal notion of meritocracy puts forward a vision of “success for all” with unlimited space at the top for people to fill, as long as they have sufficiently high aspirations, hold the requisite talents and are willing to work hard enough. However, this underplays the reality that there are finite positions at the top of the educational and occupational hierarchy and that ruthless sorting will necessarily take place. This sorting process favours those from middle class backgrounds, who have access to particular forms of social and cultural capital such as unpaid internship experience.

A harmless discourse with harmful consequences
The neoliberal meritocracy is based on principles that are, at face value, laudable and uncontroversial: the importance of seeking opportunities wherever they might lie, the sanctity of young people’s individual choices and the belief that all young people can achieve success. However, the ‘aspiration raising’ agenda which lies at the heart of this neoliberal view of meritocracy sits in stark tension with these underlying principles. It also exposes how an outwardly innocuous discourse can impose particularly negative side effects on the most disadvantaged young people. The aspiration-raising agenda opposes key elements of individual identity, discredits aspirations for material security and family life, and paints a mirage of “success for all” even though educational and labour market outcomes continue to be largely dictated by socioeconomic background. These effects are arguably felt most starkly by white working class boys. They are the group who will benefit least, not most, from the neoliberal notion of meritocracy and its aspiration raising agenda.

Masculinity and Aspiration in the Era of Neoliberal Education is available here.

This blog was reblogged on The Sociological Imagination, where you can find summaries of the other chapters in the book.

The inner city success story: how diverse urban schools lead the pack

This is an extended version of an article I wrote for the New Statesman, based on analysis I conducted for LKMco.

New analysis of data from the ONS and the Department for Education reveals that educational outcomes vary considerably between different types of area. Pupils attending schools in ethnically mixed, often deprived inner city locations achieve, on average, more than a grade better in every GCSE they sit, compared to those attending schools in more peripheral urban locations. Meanwhile, pupils attending schools in ethnically diverse inner-urban areas progress significantly faster than their rural peers.

Beyond the inner city

The map of educational disadvantage is steadily being redrawn. Until the late 1990s, the focus tended to be on deprived inner city areas – particularly inner London, which consistently came bottom of the regional school league tables in England. In the wake of the City Challenges in the capital, Manchester and the Black Country during the 2000s, alongside high profile urban-focused recruitment schemes, the fortunes of some of our previously struggling inner city schools have been raised, if not transformed. In turn, those working to reduce educational disadvantage are now beginning to shift their attention away from deprived inner city areas to new contexts. As Ofsted’s 2013 Access and Achievement report argues, “the areas where the most disadvantaged children are being let down… are no longer deprived inner city areas, instead the focus has shifted to deprived coastal towns and rural, less populous regions of the country.”

Beyond deprivation

This transition away from the inner city reflects a wider shift in education research: away from a narrow focus on deprived areas, towards particular types of deprived area. The Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) has become a staple tool when it comes to describing how social outcomes – from educational attainment to wellbeing – are linked to particular neighbourhood contexts. However, the IMD ultimately classifies areas along a single dimension (their level of deprivation) and this is where an alternative, but little used, method of classifying areas has a distinct advantage.

Rather than defining areas as simply more or less deprived, the Output Area Classification defines a given area as belonging to one of eight different ‘area types’, based on a host of Census data – from the age of residents, to the types of homes they live in, to the types of jobs they do. The real power of this area typology is that it distinguishes between deprived central London and the deprived fringes of Southampton; between the affluent suburbs of south Manchester and the affluent villages of the home counties. OAC’s eight main area types range from Cosmopolitans and Ethnicity Central, which cover the vast majority of London’s spatial area, to Constrained City Dwellers and Hard-Pressed Households which constitute a large proportion of places like Basildon, Plymouth and Sunderland.

From the perspective of education research, the OAC allows us to explore how educational outcomes vary between a range of different spatial contexts – some of which may have similar levels of deprivation. Merging the 2011 OAC with 2013 GCSE attainment data from the Department for Education reveals that educational outcomes vary significantly between different types of area, and not just because they’re more or less deprived.

How diverse urban schools the lead the pack

Pupils attending schools in cosmopolitan areas outperform those in hard-pressed areas by the equivalent of almost 1.5 grades in every GCSE they sit. This is despite the fact that cosmopolitan areas are often highly deprived. In fact, the cosmopolitan inner-urban advantage is so sizeable that the performance of schools in the most deprived cosmopolitan areas is broadly in line with the performance of schools in the least deprived places in all other areas of the country:


Meanwhile, students attending schools in the most ethnically diverse areas make the most progress at school, while those in rural areas make the slowest progress. This disparity opens up further still amongst pupils with low prior attainment:


These data demonstrate that when it comes to area-based variation in educational outcomes, it’s more useful to talk in terms of different types of area than simply ‘more or less deprived’ areas. While on average results are better in less deprived areas, ethnically diverse inner-urban areas come top of the pile for attainment and pupil progress, and by some distance, despite being some of the most deprived areas of the country.

Looking for explanations

Opportunities and aspirations

Recent research based on data from the Understanding Society survey shows that young people from inner-urban, more ethnically mixed areas of deprivation are between 2 and 5 times as likely to have aspirations for professional, managerial and technical jobs as those from outer-urban, less mixed areas of deprivation. There are well-documented links between aspirations and attainment: higher occupational aspirations in more ethnically mixed inner urban areas could well be driving higher attainment. But this begs the question: what is causing these area-level differences in aspiration? Higher aspirations in more mixed, urban areas could be linked to the more dynamic, higher-skill labour markets that tend to be concentrated in inner cities. Some suggest that aspirations in inner city areas might also be bolstered by the concentration of universities in these locations. However, educational aspirations (to go on to college and university) are no lower in hard pressed areas at the edge of cities than in multicultural inner urban areas.

Forms of parental support

Data from Understanding Society show that young people from less mixed, outer urban areas of deprivation are the most likely to feel broadly supported by their family, and around 85% of young people from all area types feel their parents are interested in how they do at school. However, when it comes to the practical ways in which parents offer support for their children’s education, differences begin to open up. Around 40% of parents in inner city and multicultural areas help with homework almost every day, compared to around 30% elsewhere, and dipping to around 25% in deprived, traditionally white working class areas. So parents in some types of area appear to be less able to support their children’s education, even if they support them in their lives more broadly and hold a strong desire for them to do well at school.

Redrawing the map

It seems that those working to tackle educational disadvantage are right to be expanding their horizons beyond the inner city, and beyond simple distinctions between more and less deprived areas. However, talking in terms of ‘coastal towns’ and ‘rural regions’ is unnecessarily vague when we have access to data that allow us to identify the specific types of area where educational outcomes appear to be weakest. Paying more attention to specific local contexts also puts us in a better position to understand the conditions that produce such large disparities in educational outcomes between different neighbourhoods.

How young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in

During the course of the last decade successive governments in the UK have placed young people’s aspirations at the core of their attempts to address poor outcomes within the education system and the labour market. An area-based approach to policy has come to the fore which links ‘low aspirations’ with particular community- and neighbourhood-level factors, in particular area-level deprivation. This area-based focus on the determinants of aspirations has faced intensifying critique from the academic research base. Responding to this policy and research debate, my PhD thesis examines whether, and how, young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in.

The thesis is based on a mixed methods research design and has two sections: an extensive phase and an intensive phase. The extensive phase of the research consists of logistic regression analysis of data from the Understanding Society Youth Questionnaire, and considers whether the types of occupations young people aspire to vary between different types of area. The intensive phase of the research consists of phenomenographic analysis of semi-structured interviews conducted with young people in a deprived, outer-urban neighbourhood in Manchester, and considers how young people’s subjective orientations towards the area they live in produce different forms of aspiration.

My thesis finds compelling evidence that young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in, but does not corroborate the claim at the core of current government policy, that aspirations are lower in more deprived areas. The extensive phase of the research instead identifies area type, rather than deprivation, as the primary area-level factor shaping young people’s aspirations, with young people from particular inner city area types almost five times as likely as their peers from deprived outer-urban areas to aspire to ‘higher’ professional, managerial and technical occupations. Meanwhile, the intensive phase of the research finds evidence that experiences of neighbourhood and family life in an area of concentrated deprivation can lead young people to adopt particular forms of aspiration that require lower levels of skill and further training, but on closer examination of the motivations for these forms of aspiration, finds little evidence that these aspirations are straightforwardly ‘low’.

Above all, the research demonstrates that young people produce multiple different senses of place, and myriad forms of aspiration, from within the same deprived spatial context: they do not simply reproduce what they see around them when imagining their futures. While there is compelling evidence that young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in, these area effects demand more nuanced research alongside policy approaches that are more receptive to young people’s constructions of place.

My thesis is available for open-access download here.

While I was writing my PhD I kept a research blog, which charted my progress, presented preliminary findings, and laid out the problems I was grappling with at each stage of the process.