Children living in rural poverty “fare worse in reading”

6 September 2011

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.

Further information from:

Warwick Mansell
BERA press officer
07813 204245

Notes for editors:

  1. The Millennium Cohort Study is a multi-disciplinary research project following the lives of around 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000/1. It is the most recent of Britain’s national longitudinal birth cohort studies.
  2. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs developed the six categories of urban/rural England used in this study. In summary, the six categories are: “major urban” (cities with at least 750,000 population such as London, Liverpool or Manchester); “large urban” (cities with 250,000-750,000 populations, such as Sheffield or Bristol; “other urban” (less than 26 per cent of population living in rural settlements or market towns); “significantly rural” (more than 26 per cent and less than 50 per cent living in rural settlements/market towns); “rural 50 per cent” (50-80 per cent of population in rural settlements); and “rural 80 per cent” (80 per cent of population or more in rural settlements).
  3. The comparison of the results of disadvantaged children involved looking at the assessment scores of those living in areas which are ranked among the top 40 per cent in the widely-used Index of Multiple Deprivation scale. Results from 2,370 children were included in this sample.
  4. The research investigated why children in poor areas in rural settings might be doing worse than their counterparts in cities in two ways. First, it checked whether parents in these areas were less active in choosing between schools. It found that fewer of those in the second most rural set of districts “rural 50 per cent”, submitted a school choice application than in other types of district. This finding was not completely conclusive, however: the research hypothesised that unobserved background characteristics of the parents in these areas may be important alongside school choice. Second, it investigated a hypothesis that children might be doing less well because of a lack of high-achieving adult role models in the area, by looking at the numbers of adults with high socio-economic status in each area. Again, deprived areas in the second most rural districts of England – again “rural 50 per cent” – came out as having the fewest number of adults of high socio-economic status.
  5. Ms Midouhas warned that the key sample on which these conclusions rest was small: there were only 23 pupils living in deprived districts within the “Rural 50 per cent” category in the study. So the results needed to be treated with caution.
  6. The 37th annual conference of the British Educational Research Association is being held at the Institute of Education, University of London from Tuesday, September 6th to Thursday, September 8h. Nearly 800 research papers will be presented during the course of the conference. The conference programme can be accessed via the BERA website: BERA’s website is
  7. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.

IOE press office contacts:

Diane Hofkins, 020 7911 5423
James Russell, 020 7911 5556

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