OECD Shows Rural Schools Outperforming Urban Districts in UK

Village schools in the UK have something to show their counterparts in urban areas: better academic outcomes. Britain is one of only five countries where students from districts with low student densities are outperforming peers in cities and the suburbs, according to a new study published by the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation.

Other countries show a distinct “urban advantage.” On average, even students from urban “inner cities” outperform students from rural districts on reading exams and the difference is equal to about a year of additional instruction. Britain appears to show dramatically different outcomes; UK students from villages and small towns outscore students from the cities.

Along with the US, Belgium, Denmark and Germany, urban students in the UK performed substantially worse than their rural counterparts. Students from city and suburban districts in the UK ranked 30th out of 57 countries ranked. Village students ranked 10th.

The OECD said pupils in inner-city schools usually came from “more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds” but the trend was reversed in a handful countries, including the UK.

The conclusions come despite a series of high-profile drives by successive governments to raise standards in inner-city education.

Under Labour, £500m was spent over two years on its Excellence in Cities campaign to tackle underachievement in schools and millions more was invested in the London Challenge and City Challenge programmes. It has led to London becoming the best-performing region of England in terms of GCSE results.

Alan Smithers of Buckingham University says that “a more settled student population” explains the results. Because parents in larger districts have more choices, they are subject to social self-segregation. Parents tend to follow the herd, attempting to enroll their children in the school they’ve been told are the best even if that isn’t the case. After a while, such herding turns into a self-fulfilling prophesy and the performance gap between the best schools and the worst widens.

According to Smithers, difference in income also plays a role. Families in rural communities tend to be richer, and reside outside urban centers because they can afford to commute.

The study was based on the outcome of independent exams administered by the OECD in schools across the developed world.

Pupils aged 15 are tested in reading, maths and science every four years as part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The UK was positioned 25th for reading in the latest tables published in 2010.