Bristol vs Sheffield: why does a poor city do better educationally than a rich one?

Francis Gilbert's picture
I've been reading Danny Dorling's excellent book, The No-Nonsense Guide To Equality, which contains some very interesting observations about the education system in the UK. Dorling's thesis, like the authors of The Spirit Level -- Why Equality Is Better For Everyone, is that inequality makes everyone, rich and poor, unhappy and less fulfilled. He also shows that education systems which foster inequality actually do much worse than systems which have equity as a key policy driver. He produces quite a bit of evidence for this; one of the most interesting of these is his comparison between the educational achievements of Bristol and Sheffield. On the surface, Bristol should out-perform its similarly sized counter-part Sheffield because it is a much more affluent city, and yet it doesn't. Dorling writes (p. 32): "I used to live in Bristol, one of England's more affluent larger cities. Bristol at the time suffered very little unemployment, its housing was expensive and incomes tended to be higher than average, and yet from Bristol proportionately fewer children found their way to study at university than from the large city where I now live in, which is Sheffield. Sheffield has for decades suffered higher unemployment than Bristol, its housing is much cheaper and a great deal of it was built by local government; incomes are on average much lower, and it is also a divided city by wealth. So why do more children from Sheffield get to university than from Bristol? The simple answer is that Sheffield has very few private schools, whereas Bristol has many. The children from Bristol whose parents pay for them to attend private school often get higher exam results, and most of them go to university. But the overall effect of taking these children out of the general state system is to reduce the funding for that system (which is per child) and to convince many children that they need to go to a non-state school to have a chance to get to university...For the city as a whole, it is cheaper and more effective not to segregate children."

Dorling's research shows that there is a very interesting link between inequality, poverty and educational attainment. He argues in a publication which can be accessed here that we need to tax the rich more heavily if we are going to achieve a more equal and fairer society -- and thereby raise educational attainment. This map shows where the real "hot spots" for educational under-achievement can be found; surprise, surprise, in our poorest conurbations.
A map outlining the Neets in England, Wales and Scotland 


This YouTube video features some interesting comments about private schools and Westminster in particular.
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