Neighbourhoods

POOR PERFORMANCE AT SCHOOL: DON’T BLAME THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Teenagers in the most deprived social housing blocks do not underperform at school because of their neighbourhood environment, according to research by Felix Weinhardt, presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2013 annual conference.

His study finds that while young people who move into highly deprived high-density social housing neighbourhoods in England get some of the worst grades at school, this is not because of local factors such as the absence of role models, good schools or positive peer pressure.

The study looks at the grades of school pupils in the poorest neighbourhoods in England, those where at least 80% of people are social tenants, with their rent supported by the state. These neighbourhoods are the most deprived in the country as measured by local unemployment rates, educational attainment of their residents, car ownership rates, house prices, overcrowding and share of single parents.

To find the effect of the neighbourhood on young people’s education, the study examines test scores at age 14 for two groups of students. The first group consists of students who move into highly deprived neighbourhoods up to three years before taking the national key stage 3 exam at age 14. Test results of these children are compared with the second group of students, who moved into similar neighbourhoods only after taking the test.

The key finding is that both groups score equally badly in the test, although only the former would have been affected by the neighbourhood – so the poor performance can not be put down to local factors. The study controls for a potential direct effect of residential relocation on test scores, as well as school quality and further student background characteristics. The author notes:

‘These two groups of students really get very bad grades, very similar to students who lived in high-density social housing neighbourhoods and never moved.

‘This means that we definitively should think about ways to help them to improve their school achievements, but we cannot do it through housing policy, at least for this age group and duration’.

Housing policies worldwide, such as the ‘mixed communities’ initiative in the UK or ‘Hope VI’ in the US are based on the idea of the existence of strong negative ‘neighbourhood effects’. These policies aim to provide social housing in better neighbourhoods, thus preventing children from getting locked in to the ghetto life. But they come at a high cost to the taxpayer.

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Teenagers in the most deprived social housing blocks do not underperform at school because of their neighbourhood environment. While it is true that students who move into highly deprived high-density social housing neighbourhoods in England get some of the worst grades at school, this is not because of local factors such as the absence of role models, good schools or positive peer pressure.

‘We have always tried to help the most disadvantaged children to get better life chances, and one of the ways we thought we could do this is through housing policy’, says Dr Felix Weinhardt, ESRC postdoctoral fellow at the London School of Economics. ‘But research now increasingly tells us that bad neighbourhood environments have no causal influence on these children’s school performances at all’.

Housing policies worldwide, such as the ‘mixed communities’ initiative in the UK or ‘Hope VI’ in the US are predicated on the idea that there are strong negative ‘neighbourhood effects’. These policies, at a high cost to the taxpayer, aim to provide social housing in better neighbourhoods, thus preventing children from getting locked in the ghetto.

Dr Weinhardt’s study of two cohorts of school children in England now finds that there are no negative effects of moving into a highly deprived high-density social housing environment on educational outcomes.

The study focuses on neighbourhoods in England that had a share of at least 80% of social tenants in the UK Census of Population in 2001. These neighbourhoods are the most deprived in the country in terms of local unemployment rates, educational attainment of their residents, car ownership rates, house prices, overcrowding and percentage of lone parents.

To study the causal effect of the neighbourhood environment, the study examines test score outcomes in the middle of secondary education for two groups of students. The first group consist of students who move into highly deprived neighbourhoods up to three years before taking the national key stage 3 exam at age 14.

Test results of these children are compared with those of the second group of students, who moved into similar neighbourhoods only after taking the test. The key finding is that both groups score equally badly in the test, although only the former had the ‘neighbourhood exposure’.

The study controls for a potential direct effect of residential relocation on test scores, as well as school quality and further student background characteristics.

‘These two groups of students really get very bad grades, very similar to students who lived in high-density social housing neighbourhoods and never moved’, Dr Weinhardt points out. ‘This means that we definitively should think about ways to help them to improve their school achievements, but we cannot do it through housing policy, at least for this age group and duration’.

ENDS


Notes for editors:

‘Neighbourhood Quality and Student Performance’ by Felix Weinhardt. A previous version of the paper won the best-graduate paper award at the Urban Economics Association Annual Conference in San Francisco in 2009.

Felix Weinhardt is currently ESRC postdoctoral fellow in Economics at the London School of Economics, based in the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP).

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

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