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August 20, 2015updated 27 Mar 2023 3:44pm

How GCSE results are affected by the city where students live

By Naomi Clayton

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.

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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. 

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