Area-based education policy - what can we learn from past efforts?

As part of the recent government white paper, 'Levelling Up', it was proposed that new Education Investment Areas will be set up to target school improvement efforts. It did not pass unnoticed by many education policy commentators that this idea of area-based targeting of funding towards alleged ‘underperforming schools’ was nothing new. Despite this, the Levelling Up white paper made no references to similar policies in the past.

The question is, what can we learn from previous policies that have targeted funding to specific areas and schools? Do they work? Do they have long-term effects on individuals and society? Does investment in education bring benefits in other policy areas too, such as reducing crime? My ADR UK fellowship is attempting to provide some answers to these questions.

The importance of long-term policy evaluation

The turn of the millennium saw a slew of new initiatives in schools and areas where educational attainment was deemed too low. At the centrepiece of these efforts was 'Excellence in Cities'. This was a major programme that ran from 1999 until 2006 that targeted funding and policy toward schools in a select number of local authorities in England.

Evaluations conducted at the time found some modest gains in pupil attainment as a result of the policy. However, as is often the case in education policy, the initiative was quickly forgotten about after it ended in 2006. As such, there have been no evaluations of the longer-term effect of the programme. This is problematic because we know from other studies that school improvement programmes usually take some years to demonstrate their full effectiveness; policy impacts may ‘fade in’ over time.

In addition, improved schooling may also have positive effects that can be missed by traditional evaluations of exam and tests scores on so-called non-cognitive outcomes. Positive effects could be highlighted by for example, a reduction in crime or improved mental wellbeing. Equally important is recognising that policies that may have an initial positive effect may not result in improved outcomes over the longer term: they ‘fade out’.

ADR UK Fellowship - School funding, pupil performance and crime: a quasi-experimental study

For my fellowship I will use the National Pupil Database records linked to the Police National Computer to test for whether the Excellence in Cities programme (and associated initiatives) had any effect on the likelihood that people commit crime. The nature of the dataset allows for analyses of the effect on individuals both during the time when they were at school but also into their adult lives. The findings from the fellowship research will add to the evidence base on the effectiveness of targeted interventions that increase school funding.

The results are not only of interest to education policymakers; knowing whether education expenditure affects crime is also a key question in crime reduction resource allocation. More widely, my work during the fellowship is intended to demonstrate the importance of long-term policy evaluation and how the availability of administrative datasets can help facilitate it.

Dr William Cook is an ADR UK-funded Research Fellow using linked MoJ-DfE data made available through Data First.

Find out more about the Fellowship.

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