Rural areas with pupils on free school meals get lower exam results

Children in the countryside were found to score lower in their GCSEs than equally disadvantaged children in urban areas

Pupils from poorer families in rural schools get lower exam results than their counterparts in urban areas – and experts say it is because the government does not have a “nuanced view” of poverty.

New figures show that schools in countryside and coastal areas are finding it particularly difficult to break the link between poverty and low attainment, even compared to those in all other areas who are similarly disadvantaged.

Local authorities in the countryside were found to report the strongest correlation between the number of pupils on free school meals and lower GCSE grades.

However schools in urban settlements like Bradford and Watford were not far behind poorer rural areas, with the second highest correlation between deprivation and attainment.

In a report for thinktank LKMco, director Loic Menzies outlined the “striking differences” between ‘ethnically diverse cosmopolitan’ areas with high poverty levels (including Greater London and Birmingham) and those separate from towns and cities.

Menzies said: “It seems that low attainment in rural, high-deprivation secondary schools is not just about pupils having low starting points. Instead, there is an important link between school deprivation level and progress rates.”

He added that the government must focus on areas like school size, local labour markets and real wealth levels in the surrounding area in order to tackle the problem.

The report suggested that poorer rural schools would benefit from joining mixed academy trusts, which share resources and best practice tips.

But there is a high rate of Church of England schools in the countryside which could be prevented from teaming up with neighbouring schools to cut costs, largely due to the requirement to preserve their Christian values.

In a report on education isolation for Plymouth and Plymouth Marjon universities, Headteachers’ Roundtable chair Stephen Tierney said: “Not without justification, these educationally isolated school leaders are frustrated by those that control resources without truly understanding the ‘context’ the school has to work in.

“Our accountability system is too narrow and unforgiving. What is required is a far greater understanding of the different improvement journeys required by these schools.

“Decades of limited access to school improvement resources – high quality workforce, school to school support and funded school improvement interventions – has led to educationally isolated schools feeling like they have been forgotten. They arguably have and it’s time for this to change.”

The report showed that rural schools have greater difficulty recruiting high quality workforces and are less connected to national funding streams than urban counterparts.

The absence of robust funding schemes in the countryside and on the coast “was seen to exacerbate disparities in school funding” overall.

And in 2016, the Social Mobility Commission ranked all English local authorities by social mobility – finding that children in some of the most remote parts of the country are least likely to improve on the socioeconomic circumstances of their families.