Educational Isolation: Identifying the relationship between ‘place’, limited access to resources and educational outcomes

Philly Ricketts headshot

In this blog post Philly Ricketts, a doctoral student and Research Impact Officer at Plymouth Marjon University, discusses her research into educational isolation. 

About the research

The attainment gap and Educational Isolation

According to performance data published by the Government in October 2022, the attainment gap in England at Key Stage 4 between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and all other pupils is currently at its widest since 2011/12. This impacts negatively on disadvantaged students in educationally isolated schools in particular, who generally do worse than their peers in urban and non-coastal schools. Yet, research on Educational Isolation indicates that this problem is not insurmountable.

The underpinning research for the REF2021 Impact Case Study titled ‘Educational Isolation: Transforming understanding and support for schools challenged by place’ was undertaken in response to poorer school performance, lower student outcomes and additional challenges for teacher recruitment and retention observed in schools in disadvantaged coastal and rural areas in England by Prof Tanya Ovenden-Hope and Dr Rowena Passy from 2010. The qualitative approaches used led to the conceptualisation of Educational Isolation, defined broadly as ‘a school experiencing limited access to resources for school improvement, resulting from challenges of school location’.[1] For educationally isolated schools, three place-based elements – geographical remoteness, socio-economic disadvantage and cultural isolation – combine to limit a school’s access to specific resources, i.e., a high-quality workforce, school support and externally funded projects.

This research was the first time that isolation, in an educational context in England, was understood as more than merely a geographic issue. The concept of Educational Isolation explains the differences in outcomes between educationally isolated schools and schools in similarly deprived urban areas, by recognising the latter’s geographical and cultural connectedness and how this increases access to resources. It contextualises a school’s ‘place’ and enables understanding of ‘place’ as a key factor that can limit access to resources.

A high-quality workforce is one of the key factors that improve learning, especially among students from disadvantaged backgrounds.[2] The underpinning research of the aforementioned REF2021 Impact Case Study encompassed an intervention, called RETAIN, designed to improve teacher retention in coastal-rural schools.[3] It demonstrated how support targeted at educationally isolated schools could mitigate the place-based limitations they experience in accessing resources, and therefore could assist in reducing the attainment gap.

Impact of Educational Isolation research

This body of research on Educational Isolation has impact. It developed a new, shared understanding of why schools in predominantly coastal, rural and post-industrial areas have failed to thrive in England. This understanding led to changes in policy and practice at a systems, school and individual level to benefit government agencies, schools, teachers and students by targeting schools whose access to resources is limited by their location.

For example, the research influenced how educationally isolated schools are perceived within Ofsted (the education regulatory body). Inspectors now contextualise these schools and recognise the challenges they face; the research resulted in changes, where relevant, to how Ofsted respond to underperformance in educationally isolated schools. It also led to the adoption of a new hub school model in at least one Multi-Academy Trust, Kernow Learning, which has improved efficiency, accountability, communication and collaboration. In particular, the new model increased access within the Trust’s schools to the specific resources limited by Educational Isolation, notably improving teacher retention and high-quality CPD for all staff.

The underpinning research has had other national and international impact. It informed a policy shift at The Talent Tap, a charity working with talented, disadvantaged school leavers. They now focus on coastal and rural social mobility cold spots to close the gap between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers, with externally funded provision targeted at educationally isolated schools. Further, RETAIN, the initiative mentioned earlier, was recommended by the University of Queensland to the Australian government as an effective Early Career Teacher Support Framework for policy change in support of measures later introduced to improve teacher recruitment and retention in that country.


A composite indicator to measure Educational Isolation

 The initial research that developed the concept was based on qualitative data, and my research on Educational Isolation complements this through the use of quantitative data to quickly and easily identify schools experiencing the phenomenon. Through the diligent construction of a composite indicator using data relating to secondary schools in England, this tool can be used to determine which schools are educationally isolated. Such identification will build on the initial conceptualisation and research, further supporting the targeting of resources, increasing understanding of contextual circumstances affecting Educational Isolation, and facilitating collaboration between schools.

The aims of the composite indicator are to create a robust, quantitative tool for the use of schools, policymakers, the regulatory body, wider educational organisation and researchers, to:

  • identify educationally isolated schools, in order to target school improvement resources to overcome the limited access of educationally isolated schools to these resources;
  • explore how the three challenges of ‘place’ (geographical remoteness, socio-economic deprivation, cultural isolation) combine to impact on school improvement opportunities;
  • employ the tool comparatively to investigate potential relationships between Education Isolation and school performance measures, for example, pupil attainment, pupil progress or quality of teaching.

The data

School data published online by the Department for Education form the basis for much of the quantitative work, with data from the UK Census (available via the UK Data Service), Higher Education Statistics Agency and Ordnance Survey’s Points of Interest also making a significant contribution. These data relate to school and university location, LSOA and MSOA demographics, socio-economic disadvantage of pupil populations, ethnicity, and accessibility of collaborative and cultural opportunities.

The benefits of a composite indicator

Identifying educationally isolated schools

There are several benefits of the composite indicator. First, it functions similarly to many multidimensional indices, such as the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2019 or the UNDP Human Development Index, in how it measures the concept in its name. Thus, the composite indicator being constructed is a sophisticated tool to rank order and identify all secondary schools experiencing Educational Isolation. There is, however, an important distinction. Since Educational Isolation is a place-based concept and schools rarely change location, year-on-year measurements would be much less likely to vary than in other indices.

Targeting resources

Another benefit relates to its granularity. National schemes that improved educational outcomes in urban areas, such as the London Challenge and City Challenge, indicate that extra financial investment and support in remote areas may bring similar improvements. Arguably, however, such investment should be more granular in terms of education. Local authority-level or city-level support is often too broad. The composite indicator will identify individual schools most in need of support, and therefore enable better targeting of funding than where it is given to larger areas with ‘hyper-local’ disparities including ‘pockets of affluence and deprivation’.

There are also benefits to a more granular level of identification within wider place-based initiatives. Identifying individual schools experiencing the greatest obstacles in accessing school improvement resources can only enhance the work of government-backed place-based collaborations, partnerships and networks mobilised in local authority districts where educational outcomes are weakest, e.g., in Opportunity Areas or Education Investment Areas. This will support combatting entrenched disadvantage and improve social mobility in local areas where it is most needed. Further, locally driven initiatives and decision-making are also likely to be required, not least since evidence indicates such measures can positively influence outcomes for disadvantaged residents. The composite indicator will support and better enable local action to be taken.

Supporting schools

Given that Educational Isolation is experienced in different ways by different schools, with certain resources more limited than others, the tool is also designed to enable exploration of different combinations of the three elements of Educational Isolation. This should help determine whether various combinations in individual schools limit access to different resources or relate to school performance in specific ways. Such understanding may further facilitate targeting of specific resources and, importantly, provide information to schools and their communities to support local solutions.

Schools will also be able to use the composite indicator in conjunction with wider research related to Educational Isolation to enquire into initiatives, interventions and solutions. Use of the composite indicator will facilitate identification of schools in similar circumstances who may have engaged with these types of activities. Such use can support individual educationally isolated schools in finding solutions relevant to their particular experience of limited access to school improvement resources.

Exploring Educational Isolation in relation to other school priorities

In addition, while the tool itself only identifies and ranks educationally isolated schools, the results it produces can be combined with data about specific features of schools (e.g., attainment, pupil progress, staff or student wellbeing, teaching quality, overall school performance) to investigate whether there is a relationship between Educational Isolation and that feature. Such information may enable better understanding by school leaders and staff, Ofsted, the government and wider educational organisations of the ways in which place impacts on school improvement opportunities. And it will hopefully lead to greater and more targeted support to improve the educational outcomes for all children in these schools.

Creation of the composite indicator was undertaken at Plymouth Marjon University as part of a funded Marjon 180 PhD studentship. It will be made publicly available upon completion in 2024.

To read more about the work you can read the REF 2021 case study mentioned (Educational Isolation: Transforming Understanding and Support for Schools Challenged by Place. University of St Mark & St John. REF2021 Results and Submissions, Impact Database, Impact Case Study. [access at]), as well as to the Educational Isolation online report (cited in footnote 1 below).

[1] Ovenden-Hope, T., & Passy, R. (2019). Education Isolation: A Challenge for Schools in England. Plymouth Marjon University and University of Plymouth. Plymouth Marjon University, p. 4.

[2] Ovenden-Hope, T., Passy, R., & Iglehart, P. (2022). Educational Isolation and the Challenge of ‘Place’ for Securing and Sustaining a Quality Teacher Supply. In I. Menter (Ed.). The Palgrave Handbook of Teacher Education Research. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[3] Ovenden-Hope, T., Blandford, S., Cain, T., & Maxwell, B. (2020). RETAIN: A research-informed model of continuing professional development for early career teacher retention. In T. Ovenden-Hope and R. Passy (Eds.) Exploring Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Contextual Challenges from International Perspectives (pp. 58-72). London: Routledge.

About the Author

Philly is a doctoral student and Research Impact Officer at Plymouth Marjon University. She is interested in social justice in education, schools serving disadvantaged communities, and policymaking. Her PhD builds on the novel concept of Educational Isolation to explore how challenges of ‘place’ combine to impact on school improvement opportunities and at which schools to target resources to improve educational outcomes.

Philly co-founded and runs the GuildHE peer support group with her colleague Abbie Cairns. She has experience in teaching and supervision. Her publications for researchers and practitioners include work on Educational Isolation, teacher supply, the Early Career Framework, and widows in medieval Iceland and Yorkshire. She has also written blog posts on research impact, and she enjoys reading (and writing) young adult fiction.

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