‘Real’ School Catchment Areas, Neighbourhood Characteristics and Access to Places at the ‘Best’ State Schools
Dr Sue Easton and Dr Ed Ferrari, University of Sheffield
How children travel to school is at the nexus of a number of policy and planning areas including: education policy (parental choice, school-siting, delineating nominated catchment areas for allocations), housing development, transport (congestion, sustainability, subsidies). Our study generated a map of ‘real’ (‘de facto’) catchment areas for Sheffield schools during 2010-11and shows that it is unlikely that parental choice policies will mitigate the effects of deeply embedded social segregation. Even if they can afford the time and expense of travelling further, it is unlikely that children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds will be able to access places at the best-performing schools
Children are now travelling further on average to school, with fewer children making the journey on foot or by bike. In the mid-1980s the mean distance travelled to school by 11-16 year olds in the UK was just over 2 miles. By 2013 this had almost doubled, increasing to 3.7 miles (Department for Transport, 2013). According to 1975/6 National Transport Survey data for Great Britain, 76% of primary and 55% of secondary pupils walked to school, and 15% (7%) travelled by car (Rigby, 1979). By 2013 only 46% of primary (37% secondary) school children walked to school and 46% (23%) travelled by car (Department for Transport, 2013). It is now estimated that less than half of all children, including primary school children, attend their nearest school (Allen, 2007, Ferrari and Green, 2013), decreasing the likelihood of choosing an ‘active’ mode of travel . In 2010, it was estimated that the ‘school run’ in urban areas i.e. car trips for the purpose of taking children to school accounted for almost a quarter (24%) of all car trips during term-time peak commuting hours (Department for Transport, 2010).
School catchment areas, their role in determining allocations, and parental choice are clearly part of the story. At a time when parents are exercising school choice rather than simply sending their children to the nearest school, what is the relevance of the ‘catchment area’? And how does this sit with anecdotal and statistical evidence about families who can afford to buying into catchment areas for the best schools?
Encouraging active modes of transport for the school commute is also high up the public health agenda due to concerns about rising car dependency, children’s low levels of physical exercise and the childhood ‘obesity crisis’, as well as environmental concerns about exposure to pollution during peak commuting times.
In our study, which was undertaken in collaboration with Sheffield City Council, we used data collected by the Council as part of the national School Census to generate a map of ‘real’ (‘de facto’) catchment areas for Sheffield schools during 2010-11 (a year in which data on travel mode was also recorded). These areas were calculated using estimated routes from home to school based on actual road and walking path networks using GIS mapping tools. The result, shown in Figure 1, is a complex arrangement of overlapping catchment areas. These catchment areas are based on the 65% of pupils who live closest to their school (in terms of route distance) in order to focus on the core neighbourhoods covered by the school, and exclude outliers. This map of actual catchment areas based on real pupil intakes looks very different to the map of official school catchment areas on which allocations were partly based at that time (see Figure 2 below). The faith and funding status of the school and covering a semi-rural area notably affect the size of catchment areas.
Figure 1: Catchment Areas for Primary Schools (Infants excluded) based on 65% of Pupil Intake
Figure 2: Map of Nominated Catchment Areas for Primary School Allocations, Sheffield
In order to investigate the relationships between the social composition and spatial relationship of diverse neighbourhoods to different schools we created a bespoke geodemographic classification for Sheffield using core socioeconomic variables from the census such as proportions of: people with no car access, housing tenure (social, rented, owned), employed/unemployed at the small area level. The index also included a house-price index based on Land Registry property price data. Finally, we overlaid the catchment areas for Sheffield’s ‘best-performing’ primary schools that took children up to age 11 (assessed on Key Stage 2 results) over our neighbourhood map – see Figure 3 below.
Figure 3. Core Primary Catchments (2020-11) with Neighbourhood Classification for Sheffield
Like many other British cities Sheffield is heavily polarised socially and spatially, with the wealthier west side (‘spacious suburbs’) bordering on the Peak District National Park, contrasting sharply with the poorer areas to the north and east of the city (‘manual working class’) characterised by social housing and cheaper private housing. The map in Figure 3 clearly shows the compound advantage to those families living to the south-west, where multiple effective catchments overlap, and whose children are accessing numerous high-achieving schools and peer groups. This area, characterised by some of the highest house prices in Sheffield, illustrates why numerous attempts have been made to quantify the premium that living in the catchment area for a popular state school adds to the value of local mortgages, and why it has been argued that access to places at “good” state schools is not really free (Cheshire and Sheppard, 2004, Leech and Campos, 2001). Indeed, we detected a significant positive correlation of 0.51 between core catchment area house-price and Key Stage results for the best-performing primary schools.
It is true that the reason why many of these state schools have a high average performance is related to the educational advantage of the pupils from higher soecioeconomic backgrounds who attend them. However, in terms of real choice and access for pupils from other areas – given the local high demand for places at these schools and the ongoing tie to local neighbourhoods via school allocation policies (proximity to school being a key criteria), it is unlikely that parental choice policies will mitigate the effects of deeply embedded social segregation. Even if they can afford the time and expense of travelling further, it is unlikely that children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds will be able to access places at the best-performing schools (Burgess et al., 2011).
This article arises from work funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, project ES/K003720/1
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Photo credit: School group by Philip Howard