Media Briefings

CHILDREN’S SCHOOL RESULTS

  • Published Date: September 2013

CHILDREN’S SCHOOL RESULTS: No evidence of either positive or negative ‘neighbourhood effects’ in England

The quality of your neighbours – good or bad – makes no difference to how well your children perform in school. That is the conclusion of research by Steve Gibbons, Olmo Silva and Felix Weinhardt, published in the September 2013 issue of the Economic Journal. And while neighbours do seem to make some difference to children’s attitude to school and their propensity for anti-social behaviour, the effects are very weak.

When new neighbours move in to your street, should you worry about the effect their children will have on yours? That is the basic question the research team address. They note that if you’ve read a lot of previous research on so-called ‘neighbourhood effects’, you might be very worried. These studies often show a correlation between the kind of neighbours a child grows up with, and their subsequent behaviour and educational achievement.

Such findings have been very influential on policy-makers, for example, motivating measures to encourage mixed communities. But the new study tells a very different story: it turns out that changes in neighbours make no difference at all to how well children already living in the neighbourhood do in tests at school.

The study looks at the effect of neighbouring, similar-age children on a child’s school test scores and various behavioural outcomes. It investigates how test scores and behaviour change over time, as other children move in and out of a child’s home neighbourhood and change the composition of the local area. It looks at changes in the mix of boys and girls, the average ability (measured by test scores at age 7) and whether or not they are on free school meals (a standard proxy for low income).

The researchers focus on two specific questions:

· To what extent are school test scores at ages 14 and 16 influenced by the academic quality or other characteristics of children of similar age who live in the same neighbourhood?

· To what extent are behavioural outcomes of children, such as attitudes towards school truancy, substance use and anti-social behaviour, affected by the academic quality or other characteristics of children in the neighbourhood?

They are able to address these questions using a big administrative data set of over 1.3 million teenagers in England, who can be tracked for up to five years. The data make it possible to start from a very small unit of analysis, aggregating-up to larger areas to validate the findings regarding the spatial scale of analysis.

Furthermore, the researchers can use multiple age groups of children to define their neighbourhood quality variables, for example, focusing only on same-age children or on children in the neighbourhood who are one year older or younger. They also test for potential heterogeneity along both the individual and neighbourhood dimensions.

Finally, the researchers carefully control for parental sorting and other neighbourhood level correlated effects by individual, secondary-school-by-cohort-by-year, primary school fixed effects and neighbourhood trends. This means that variation in neighbourhood quality that is generated by residential mobility of other pupils is used to estimate effects on pupils who do not move themselves.

As in previous studies, the researchers document strong unconditional associations between neighbourhood characteristics and children’ outcomes. But once school level controls or neighbourhood trends, such as gentrification, are added, previously significant estimates become close to zero. So their main findings are that:

· There is no evidence for social interactions affecting cognitive outcomes of 14 to 16 year old children.

· There is weak evidence for social interactions in the neighbourhood affecting behavioural outcomes. Notably, there is some heterogeneity along the gender dimensions regarding attitudes towards school and anti-social behaviour.

So why do these findings differ from earlier work? The reason is that people choose where to live, subject to their incomes and the cost of housing. Correlation between children’s outcomes and neighbours’ characteristics comes about mainly because children from richer families live next to other children from rich families, and children from poor families live next to other children from poor families. On average, children from rich families tend to do better at school. Neighbours’ test scores are also correlated because children in the same neighbourhood go to the same schools.

Researchers can use statistical methods to try to ‘control’ for these differences using data on income and school quality, but this approach has previously had limited success. By looking at what happens to a given child as their neighbours move in and out over a number of years, the new study circumvents the worst of these problems.

The research findings do not stand alone. The best evidence emerging from the United States and elsewhere using experimental methods (for example, the Moving to Opportunity experiment) reaches similar conclusions. The quality of your neighbours – good or bad – makes no difference to your child’s education or other outcomes related to economic self-sufficiency. Neighbours may, on the other hand, matter for physical health and mental wellbeing – but as yet there is limited evidence on this for Britain.

ENDS

Notes for editors: ‘Everybody Needs Good Neighbours? Evidence from Students’ Outcomes in England’ by Steve Gibbons, Olmo Silva and Felix Weinhardt is published in the September 2013 issue of the Economic Journal.

The authors are at the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) at the London School of Economics (LSE). Steve Gibbons is also director of the Spatial Economics Research Centre (SERC) at LSE; and Olmo Silva is SERC’s research director.

For further information: contact Steve Gibbons via email: s.gibbons@lse.ac.uk; Olmo Silva via email: O.Silva@lse.ac.uk; Felix Weinhardt via email: F.J.Weinhardt@lse.ac.uk; or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com; Twitter: @econromesh).