Is there really a link between school performance and the Brexit vote?

Matching Ofsted reports to voting patterns. DGLimages/shutterstock.com

Michael Wilshaw, the outgoing head of schools inspectorate Ofsted, claimed in a recent interview that there was a direct link between the failure of schools to improve and the vote in favour of Brexit.

Wilshaw specifically spoke about the under-performance of schools in the north and the East Midlands of England and how it had fuelled the sense of the divided nation reflected in the 52% vote in favour of Brexit. Wilshaw suggested that this division was:

… feeding into a wider malaise that I sense with the Brexit vote, that actually this wasn’t just about leaving Europe, it’s about ‘our needs being neglected, our children are not getting as good a deal as elsewhere’.

The government, however, highlighted that across England, 90% of primary schools and 78% of secondary schools were judged good or outstanding at their most recent inspection.

Boston and Lambeth

Wilshaw’s comments triggered my curiosity and, along with my colleague Rob Vickers, I decided to explore whether there was a relationship between how schools and their regions are ranked by Ofsted and Brexit voting patterns.

First off, the “top” Brexit voting areas were overwhelmingly in eastern England and not the north, as the BBC’s useful referendum analysis map of the percentages who voted for Brexit illustrates.

Putting geography aside, we decided to look at the top ten areas in England which voted Leave and the top ten that voted Remain, as listed by the BBC.

We then searched for schools within a three-mile radius around these areas by using a government website which compares school and college performance tables.

Although the government tables don’t state where the centre of the three-mile radius is, they are still useful as they give an overview of Ofsted rankings which can then be mapped to referendum voting areas.

The top voting Brexit area in England was Boston in Lincolnshire, where 75.6% voted Leave. So, if Wilshaw is correct, there should be signs of education underachievement here.

Taking the government’s figures of 90% of primary and 78% of secondary schools being ranked as good or outstanding as the benchmark, we found that 92% of both Boston’s primary and secondary schools are good or outstanding – above the national figure.

We then looked at the top voting Remain areas for comparison. In the case of Lambeth in London – the top Remain voting area with 79% voting to stay – we found that almost 92% of the primary schools and all 100% of secondary schools serving the area are good or outstanding.

We also examined the areas that were almost 50% Leave and 50% Remain, such as High Peak in Derbyshire, where 50.5% of people voted Leave and 49.5% Remain. For this area, 80% of the primary schools were good or outstanding – below the national figure of 90% – but 100% of secondary schools were good or outstanding, above the national figure of 78%.

It seems therefore, that although there is no difference in primary school performance between Boston and Lambeth, the story is different at secondary level.

Even though the number of good and outstanding secondary schools in these two areas were above the national figure, there was a gap of eight percentage points between them – a difference that could be down to what’s called the London Challenge effect.

Regional relationships

There is a problem with this analysis of course. The performances tables provided by the government reveal that there are not the same number of schools in a three-mile radius in rural and urban areas. For example, in Lambeth, there are 204 primary and secondary schools within three miles whereas in Boston there are only 25.

So, we then looked at the most recent Ofsted regional reports for 2013-14. These reports tell us the percentage of pupils who attend schools which are outstanding, good, requiring improvement and inadequate in eight regional areas. We then mapped these percentages to the Brexit areas outlined in the BBC data.

We found that the top four Remain voting areas in England – London, south west, north-west and south-east – are also the top four areas when ranked by Ofsted for good or outstanding schools. The four areas where the most people voted most for Brexit – West Midlands, the east, East Midlands and Yorkshire, the Humber and north-east – are the bottom four areas ranked by Ofsted for good or outstanding schools, as the chart below shows.

Of course, this analysis is just a snapshot. To do a more sophisticated analysis we’d need to map the Brexit vote to the Ofsted ranking of schools over an extended period of time.

Even such a long-term analysis must, however, take into account a raft of factors. For example, it must not exclude the number of an area’s voters who did, and did not, attended the schools serving that area. In some cases, population changes might be high, in others the population is far more static.

So, was Wilshaw correct?

While the veracity of Wilshaw’s statement depends on exactly how you look at the data, there appears to be some correlation between those areas of the country where a majority voted for Brexit, and school performance.

Wilshaw’s statement, which draws a direct link between school performance and the sense of being ignored which led to Brexit, is therefore clearly both thought provoking and in need of further investigation. Not to do so, would miss an opportunity to drill down into some of the “whys” and “wherefores” of one of the most important political decisions in a generation.