Fear for English children living in ‘education deserts’

“About twice as many local areas are classed as “education deserts” in the South West (6.4 per cent of local areas) and Yorkshire and the Humber (5.7 per cent) as in London (2.9 per cent).”

Nicola Woolcock, Education Editor www.thetimes.co.uk

More than 200,000 children live in an area with no good or outstanding primary schools, a report will reveal tomorrow.

One in every 25 primary age children — equivalent to 218,000 — lives in a local area containing only underperforming primary schools, according to research from the think tank Onward and New Schools Network, which supports new free schools.

It shows 306 areas across England where the only primary schools available are rated either inadequate or requiring improvement by Ofsted. The authors say this means that parents in these areas have far less choice, which limits their children’s educational opportunities.

The report will call on the government to “level up” opportunity by turning around school quality in these “education deserts”. It says that many have been underperforming for decades.

Using the nine statistical regions of England, it says that about twice as many local areas are classed as “education deserts” in the South West (6.4 per cent of local areas) and Yorkshire and the Humber (5.7 per cent) as in London (2.9 per cent). Among local authorities, the council areas with most deserts include Wellingborough, Arun, Ipswich, Cambridge and Scarborough.

In London and the South East, 86 per cent and 77 per cent of local areas contain only good or outstanding schools. This compares with 59 per cent in the East Midlands and 61 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber, showing that good school access depends much on where families live.

There is one local authority with only underperforming secondary schools: South Derbyshire.

Rated 40th in the country for the proportion of pupils achieving five or more A*-C grades including English and maths in 1998, it has dropped 74 places in the past two decades.

Among local authorities, only Dorset has seen a greater fall in attainment ratings over the same period.

In a foreword to the report, Jonathan Gullis, the Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent North and a member of the education select committee, said getting schools back to where they were before the pandemic would be “nowhere near enough” and that a long-term, radical plan for school reform was needed.

“Levelling up has come to mean a wealth of different things, but ultimately it comes down to improving opportunity,” he said. “We all have talent but tragically opportunity is not distributed evenly. There is no part of society where this is more true, and more important, than in education.

“Progress scores in my constituency in Stoke-on-Trent, for example, are the seventh lowest in the country. This tells us that compared to their peers around England, young people in Stoke-on-Trent are falling behind.

“This isn’t their fault: out of the 15 mainstream secondary schools, only one is rated outstanding and a third are requiring improvement. Nor can ambitious parents or talented kids easily travel to attend a better secondary school near by.”

The Times Education Commission is consulting experts about whether substantial change is needed in the education system after the pandemic. It will release its full findings next summer.

Access to good schools across England

• The desert analysis uses “middle layer super output areas”, which are small units of geography. There are 6,791 of these areas in England, each with an average population of about 8,000 people. They have a median size of 3.04 sq km.

• The report shows what proportion of these areas in each region contain only good and outstanding schools and what proportion contain only schools that are inadequate or require improvement (RI). It revealed wide variations across the country:

East Midlands Good or outstanding 59%, RI or inadequate 4.7%

London 86%, 2.9%

East of England 66%, 4.6%

North East 76%, 3.7%

North West 75%, 3.3%

South East 77%, 4.4%

South West 63%, 6.4%

West Midlands 67%, 4.4%

Yorkshire and the Humber 61%, 5.7%