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Bringing educational isolation into focus: Identifying non-urban schools and targeting resources to improve educational outcomes

Philly Iglehart, PhD student at Plymouth Marjon University

Imagine you’re a student in an isolated secondary school in a rural, coastal or former industrial area of England. You look and sound like all your classmates; there’s very little diversity. The only hot meal many of you get each day is in the school hall at lunchtime. You want to learn, but sometimes teachers leave during the school year and it’s disruptive.

Imagine you’re a teacher at the school. You and your colleagues want to collaborate with other schools to improve the quality of teaching for your students, but it takes too long to travel along narrow country lanes to get there. You want to broaden your students’ horizons, but cultural sites are too far away and too expensive to travel to.

Imagine you’re a school leader at the school. You struggle to hire good young teachers because they prefer cities where they can have an active social life, more easily than in your isolated rural area or seaside town. Moreover, you also struggle to hire experienced teachers because there aren’t enough jobs locally for their partners. And your school is geographically too remote to band together with other ‘local’ schools for economies of scale to buy in training or to apply for joint funding.

These students, teachers and school leaders are part of a school community experiencing ‘educational isolation’ (Ovenden-Hope & Passy, 2015, pp. 12–17; Ovenden-Hope & Passy, 2019). This is problematic because educational isolation is associated with poor educational achievement and life outcomes for the students in these schools (Ovenden-Hope & Passy, 2019, p. 8; Talent Tap, 2021).

Research has shown that educationally isolated schools are characterised by three challenges of ‘place’. These schools are: 1) geographically remote; 2) culturally isolated; and 3) they serve a socio-economically deprived community. These challenges of place significantly limit access to school improvement resources that other schools take for granted: a high-quality teaching staff, school-to-school support and externally funded initiatives. Historically, economic disadvantage has played a large role in the examination of educational underperformance in England (DCSF, 2009; Ofsted, 2013). Educational isolation advocates for a new way of thinking by contextualising ‘place’ and understanding it as a key factor that can restrict resources necessary for school improvement (Ovenden-Hope & Passy, 2019, pp. 4–7).

‘Challenges of place significantly limit access to school improvement resources that other schools take for granted: a high-quality teaching staff, school-to-school support and externally funded initiatives.’

The concept of educational isolation is starting to be understood and recognised throughout education in England (see for example Dropzone et al., 2020, p. 1; Ofsted, 2020). Now we need to find a way to identify schools experiencing these challenges so resources can be targeted at these schools. However, with almost 3,500 secondary schools in England and metro-centric policymakers often focused on urban areas, educationally isolated schools are difficult to pinpoint. We need a tool to enable educational underperformance in these schools to be brought into focus, to see it quickly and consistently, so we can address it. A tool that acts like a good pair of glasses.

My research is helping to create this tool – a multidimensional index that will measure educational isolation in all secondary schools in England, with each of the three challenges of place being measured by one of the three dimensions. It will identify those schools that are educationally isolated and rank them according to severity. This will allow us to see at a glance which schools are most in need of support. It will allow us to better understand the concept of educational isolation and delve deeper into how the three challenges of place interact. And it will support further exploration of why and how educationally isolated schools perform worse than other schools, so that support to improve outcomes for students can be targeted appropriately.

This multidimensional index tool is the education system’s missing glasses. It will bring educational isolation into focus for policymakers, Ofsted, schools, and educational organisations and charities, so that we can ensure all students have the best opportunity to achieve, in education and in life.

This tool is necessary, because we can’t fix what we can’t see.


Department for Children, Schools and Families [DCFS]. (2009). Deprivation and education: The evidence on pupils in England, foundation stage to key stage 4.

Dropzone Youth Projects, Furness Academy, University of Central Lancashire, & West Lakes Academy. (2020). Response to parliamentary select committee on the impact of Covid-19 on left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: Call for evidence.

Office for Standards in Education [Ofsted]. (2020). Fight or flight? How ‘stuck’ schools are overcoming isolation. overcoming-isolation/fight-or-flight-how-stuck-schools-are-overcoming-isolation-evaluation-report.

Office for Standards in Education [Ofsted]. (2013). Unseen children: Access and achievement 20 years on.  

Ovenden-Hope, T., & Passy, R. (2015). Coastal academies: Changing school cultures in disadvantaged coastal regions in England.

Ovenden-Hope, T., & Passy, R. (2019). Education isolation: A challenge for schools in England.  

Talent Tap. (2021). Theory of change.