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The tragedy of state education outside London – Tim Leunig

February 8, 2012

At an IPPR North conference last December I criticised education in Leeds, noting that a child from a poor family typically does much better in London than in Leeds – or any other city outside London. To my surprise, the Yorkshire Post quoted my speech with approval.

I was surprised because not everyone agrees that differences in schools are the cause of different results. People tell me that differences in parents are a more likely cause. I can’t prove that this is wrong, but let me explain why I don’t buy it.

First, I don’t think that parents of children on free school meals are going to be that different in different parts of the country.

Nor do I think that the obvious opportunities in London motivate parents or children. Bristol does terribly despite being a large city with plenty of opportunities.

I think it is schools that make the difference. The extent of London’s outperformance increases as children get older, from ages 7 to 11, 11 to 14 and 14 to 16. That looks like a school effect, not a parent effect.

The London effect is also London wide, including the white working class eastern suburbs. Again that looks like a school effect to me.

London schools attract more and better applicants for teaching posts. We don’t know why teachers prefer to teach in London, where the London weighting does not cover the extra costs of living locally, but we know that they do. My instinct is that most teachers are in ‘two career’ households, and this makes London attractive.

The conclusion that schools outside London are failing is both tragic and optimistic. Tragic because people’s potential is being thrown away. And optimistic because we can sort it out if we want to.

The human cost was brought home to me by an email from an LSE student, who saw my IPPR North speech referred to in the Sunday Times. The student has great results so far, and is likely to get a first this year. He attended a state school in the north of England, and his school results are simply out of line with getting a first at LSE.

He applied to five good universities, and only LSE admitted him. This speaks to the Sutton Trust’s earlier work that urged universities to use contextual data in deciding who to admit. It found that students from poorer backgrounds often do better at university than those from richer backgrounds with better school results.

But the real kick in the student’s email to me was this: “Many of my school friends appear just as switched on and intelligent as students at LSE. Yet they are studying at lesser universities or are not in higher education at all. The education system has failed them, and they will have to pay for it.”

Tim Leunig is chief economist at CentreForum and a reader in economic history at LSE.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kevin Tennent permalink
    February 8, 2012 9:36 am

    Hello Tim,

    The obvious question to ask would be how it works somewhere like MIlton Keynes, where the are both plenty of local opportunities and and access to opportunities in London. Might help to separate out whether London or opportunity are the important dependent variable.


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