Children living in poverty in some rural areas have lower standards of reading than their counterparts in cities, a new analysis of pupil assessments has shown.
Policymakers may need to rethink their tendency to focus much of their attention on inner city deprivation following the result, says the researcher behind it, as deprived children in the countryside can face extra disadvantages which are felt less strongly in England’s urban centres.
The findings come in a sophisticated data analysis which looked at assessment results of 4,020 children at the age of seven, whose progress through life is being tracked as part of the Millennium Cohort Study.
It found evidence that children in poorer rural areas may be missing out because their parents may lack the choice of school available to their counterparts in urban districts. And poorer parts of the countryside contain fewer adults who could act as successful role models to children, the study concluded.
The results should be treated with caution, however, as the key finding was based on assessment data from a small number of children.
The research was being presented at the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference in London today. The study categorised areas of England according to one of six classes of settlement, from the largest urban centres such as London or Manchester to the most rural districts, such as some in north Cornwall and the Isle of Wight.
Assessment results of the seven-year-olds in reading, non-verbal ability and maths were then compared according to how rural or urban the area they lived in was.
The study found that, in general, children in rural areas tended to get better results than those in urban districts. But this could largely be explained by background factors, such as the fact that parents in rural districts tend, on average, to have a higher socio-economic status than those in cities, and children of parents with higher socio-economic status achieve better results, on average.
Once a wide range of background factors, also including the children’s ethnicity, gender and precise age and each parent’s level of education had been considered in a statistical model, the research overall found no general difference between the performance of children in rural and urban areas.
However, the study, by Emily Midouhas of the Institute of Education, University of London, also specifically compared the assessment results of children categorised as living in the more deprived areas of England.
It found that there were no major differences in these children’s results in maths and non-verbal ability between those living in deprived areas in urban and rural settings, once children’s background factors were taken into account. However, children living in poor areas in the second most rural of the six types of area in England scored, on average, lower on the reading test than those in all types of urban districts, even when background characteristics were considered.
A further investigation uncovered data suggesting that a lack of use of school choice by parents in poorer areas of the countryside, and a relative lack of successful role models for children in these areas, could be contributing factors.
Ms Midouhas said that Government schemes such as the “Excellence in Cities” programme and Sure Start – which were both launched in the early years of the last Labour government – had often tended to direct attention and resources towards improving education and childcare for children in the inner cities. But these results suggested focus should also be directed at the effects of rural poverty.
She said: “Children living in deprived areas across the country may be most at risk for lower cognitive ability during primary school if they live in more rural areas. “Though policy-makers tend to focus on improving well-being in urban areas through education interventions …they may ignore children in deprived rural areas who may be even more at risk due to a lesser presence of high status adult role models and less school choice.”
More research could investigate, she said, whether certain aspects of school education could counter the fact that children in some deprived rural areas had less access to relatively successful adult role models, with interventions then designed to help address this issue.
“Academic achievement of primary school children in rural compared with urban areas in England” is being presented by Emily Midouhas at BERA on Tuesday, September 6th.
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