Contradictory capital city confuses and confounds

January 21, 2005

Londoners do worse at GCSE than their peers in the rest of the country yet they notch up a high participation rate. Lee Elliot Major reports on the factors behind this puzzle

Here is an educational conundrum. Average exam results in London schools are consistently lower than those elsewhere in the country. Truancy among children is twice the national average; and there are twice as many teaching vacancies in the capital as anywhere else. Yet a much higher proportion of young people from London - 36.4 per cent - go to university than from any other English region. In particular, the capital's 19-year-olds are much more likely to enter higher education than their counterparts in the rest of the country. Some 15 per cent go to university - more than twice as many as those from the North East for example.

But most startling of all, 73 per cent more young people from the most deprived districts in London enrol on degree courses than those from similarly deprived wards elsewhere in England.

It is the same story across the metropolis: from Tooting in the south, to Archway in the north, Eltham Park in the east and Hounslow Central in the west, districts defy expectations, registering high university take-up despite the relatively poor backgrounds of the families living in the areas. These four wards are among some 230 in London with university participation rates of more than 43 per cent for young people.

The map of local education authorities of London, meanwhile, reveals large swaths of high-participation levels, with a corridor in the east of slightly lower participation rates.

So, despite poorly performing schools, London's teenagers are arguably the nation's most successful in terms of educational achievement as measured by university admissions. How can this apparent contradiction be explained?

One possible reason is the large proportion of students from ethnic backgrounds in the capital - and this is explored in some detail by the Hefce report.

Across the country, about two fifths of ethnic-minority students enter university at 19 - a higher proportion than their white counterparts. And just under half of all university entrants from ethnic-minority backgrounds in England come from London - whereas a tenth of white entrants come from the capital. Could they be behind the unexpected trends?

An analysis of the figures by Hefce, however, reveals that it is the variation between white university entrants at age 19 that distinguishes London from the rest of the country. The proportion of ethnic-minority students aged 19 going to university varies little across different regions in England. But the picture for white entrants is very different. Just over two fifths of white 19-year-olds from the capital enter higher education- almost twice the proportion of those from the Midlands and the North. What is not clear is why Londoners delay entering higher education for a year at 18 years old. Do young Londoners need to raise extra money during a year out to save up for student life? Do more retake A levels and other school examinations before applying to enrol on a degree - something that may explain the poor results in schools? Or is it simply that more choose to take gap years before going to university?

One thing is irrefutable from the figures compiled by Hefce: it is particularly 19-year-olds from poor districts who are behind the London effect. Nearly half of university entrants from the poorest areas are made up of 19-year-olds in London compared with a third elsewhere in the country.

Another observation that may shed some light on the high participation rates is the improving results of the lowest-performing schools in London over recent years. From 1996 to 2000, GCSE results at the lowest-performing 20 per cent of schools in London improved at about twice the rate of the same lowest performing schools elsewhere in the country. During the same five-year period, university participation from London's bottom 20 per cent of wards ranked by deprivation increased at four times the rate for similar deprived districts outside the capital.

The Hefce report, however, stresses that school results in London cannot by themselves explain the higher education take-up patterns - in fact, they run counter to what might be expected.

"This simple comparison to GCSE results trends is clearly not the full explanation of participation patterns observed," it says. "For the (year) 2000 cohort (of students) the most deprived 20 per cent of wards in London have a participation rate 73 per cent higher than the most deprived 20 per cent of wards outside London, yet the GCSE 5 A-C (results) measure for the lowest ranked 20 per cent of schools in London is 12 per cent less than for the lowest ranked 20 per cent of schools elsewhere in England."

Another well-known educational statistic is that twice as many parents in London send their offspring to high-performing private schools, many of which are outside the capital. This could also explain the apparent disparity between school results in the capital and its high university participation rates.

Finally, one explanation offered is that London by its very nature - a social melting pot and the home of the market - encourages and inspires more people to consider higher education. Nowhere else do people from different backgrounds live so closely side by side; and nowhere else matches the intensity of competition witnessed in the capital.

Penny Jane Burke, lecturer in higher education in the School of Educational Foundations and Policy Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, argues, for example, that government policies to extend the choice of schools for parents has been realised only in London, where so many schools exist in close proximity; in less-populated areas, the closest school is still often the only realistic option for children.

She says: "In London, people might be moving between schools more, some are the beneficiaries of the changes in the marketisation of education, although these individuals tend to come from middle-class families. It might be that people are more likely to go to a school outside their immediate neighbourhood either out of choice or because they have not been accepted at the local school of their choice.

"This could possibly contribute to greater social mixing in schools, which might have a positive influence on changing attitudes towards different social and cultural groups and open up new opportunities for some social groups to participate in higher education. Generally, there is more mobility in London - people moving out of and moving into the capital."

Katherine Hewlett, head of educational development at Westminister University, argues that the higher education market in the capital offers greater choice than anywhere else in the country. She says: "London, unlike many other areas, even other urban and metropolitan areas, has the highest proportion of higher education provision per person than elsewhere. There is so much choice available; it is a highly competitive environment and we are all trying to get people (students) in."

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