Neighbours and educational achievement

Do a child's neighbours affect their performance at school? LSE's Steve Gibbons investigates.

Next door neighboursNew families have moved in to your street. Should you worry about their kids making friends with your kids? What if they’re ‘a bad influence’? You’ve heard that the neighbourhood a child grows up in affects their behaviour and achievement – what if the new neighbours are ‘the wrong sort’?

It is easy to see a correlation between the kind of neighbours a child grows up with, and their subsequent behaviours and educational achievement. This perception, and earlier research findings that supported it, has been very influential, for example in motivating policy to encourage ‘mixed communities’ in order to improve life chances.

However, much recent academic research tells quite a different story. For example, studies from the Spatial Economics Research Centre (SERC) at the London School of Economics suggest that the type of neighbours you have makes no difference at all to how well children do academically in school.

Counterintuitive

So why do these academic research findings differ from what casual observation, and evidence based on simple correlations might suggest? The reason is that families ‘sort’ into neighbourhoods according to their preferences and – especially important, because of housing costs – their incomes. This leads to segregation on many socio-economic dimensions.

The correlation between children’s outcomes and neighbours’ characteristics comes about mainly from the fact that the children from richer families tend to live next to other children from rich families, and children from poor families live next to other children from poor families. And children from rich families tend (on average) to do better at school. Neighbours’ school test scores are also correlated with each other because children in the same neighbourhood generally attend the same schools. 

Researchers can use statistical methods to try to ‘control’ for these differences using data on family income and school quality, in order to estimate whether bad neighbours ‘cause’ bad outcomes. But this approach always has limited success. Good evidence requires more sophisticated research methods.

Two studies from LSE looked at how a child’s achievement at school changes between age 11 and age 14. The first looked at the effects of moving into social housing, which as one might expect is associated with a lower test scores at school at age 14, given the many disadvantages faced by those in social housing. But the effects on test scores are the same whether the move occurred before or after the test was taken, so evidently this worse performance has nothing to do with the effect of the neighbours the child experienced when they moved.

The second study (now published in the Economic Journal) estimated what happens to a child’s achievement as other children move in and out and change the local neighbourhood composition, but also found no effects.  On the other hand, neighbours do seem to make some small difference to a child’s attitude to school and their propensity for anti-social behaviour. On-going research at SERC suggests too that living in a neighbourhood where people move in and out frequently does slightly reduce a child’s performance at school. This could be because high turnover of neighbours leads to weaker social ties and friendships. All these investigations were carried out using a large administrative data set on all state school children in England (the National Pupil Database).

These research findings do not stand alone in finding little impact from neighbours on life chances. The best evidence emerging from the US uses experimental methods (e.g. the Moving to Opportunity experiment, in which poor families were randomly offered the chance to relocate to better neighbourhoods) or other experiment-like research designs, and comes to similar conclusions. The quality of your neighbours, good or bad, does not make any difference to your child’s education, or other outcomes related to economic self-sufficiency. Neighbours may, on the other hand, matter for ‘non-cognitive’ outcomes like physical health and mental wellbeing but there is as yet limited good evidence on these questions for Britain.

An important role for academic research is in informing the design of effective policy.  In this instance, policy aimed at improving life chances through social mixing does not appear to be justified by the evidence. And disadvantaged kids moving in next door isn’t, in itself, likely to spell trouble for your child’s education.

Steve Gibbons is Professor of Economic Geography at London School of Economics, where he is also Director of the Spatial Economics Research Centre.

References: 
  1. Gibbons, S. (2002) Neighbourhood effects on educational achievement [PDF]. Centre for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.
  2. Gibbons, S., Silva, O. and F. Weinhardt (2013). Everybody needs good neighbours? Evidence from student outcomes in England, Economic Journal 123 (571) 831–874.
  3. Gibbons, S, Silva, O Weinhardt, F. (2010). Do neighbours affect teenage outcomes? Evidence from neighbourhood changes in England [PDF], Spatial Economics Research Centre, London, UK, Reports SERCDP0063 and CEEDP0122.
  4. Sanbonmatsu L, Marvokov J, Porter N, Yang F, Adam E, Congdon WJ, Duncan GJ, Gennetian LA, Katz LF, Kling JR, et al. The Long-Term Effects of Moving to Opportunity on Adult Health and Economic Self-Sufficiency. Cityscape [Internet]. 2012;14(2):109-36.

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